by Nadia Bee
Barcelona Noir has arrived – cool, stylish, and dark. Passion, anger and resentment seethe under the surface, ready to erupt. I Know Who You Are starts off intriguingly, and then keeps you in its grip to the end. It is cleverly done – bearings happily lost with all the twists and turns of the plot and the rapid pace. With episodes lasting longer than the customary hour, one is never quite sure of what’s next, if the screen will fade to black or if the narrative will bounce again in yet another shock revelation. The approach feels unusual, but it is all sure-footed and it going somewhere, and faster than one thinks. Best then to relinquish control and enjoy the ride.
I Know Who You Are (Sé Quien Eres); Season one: 16 episodes; Spain 2017. Our Rating: ★★★★/5
An autumn day in the country. An injured man stumbles somewhere on a small road, in remote woods. He is middle-aged, lean, greying, elegant. There is a certain air about him. He has been in an inexplicable car accident. In hospital, a hostile woman speaks to him. His wife. But he doesn’t recognise her. He has lost his memory. He learns that he is Juan Elías (Francesc Garrido), an eminent Barcelona lawyer. His wife, Alicia Castro (Blanca Portillo), is a high-ranking judge. She is a lot smarter than he is, but she has a weakness: him.
They are a power couple, ambitious, ruthless. It is clear from the way Alicia looks at Elías that she has lost faith in him. She is also of an age when women perhaps start to look at men with greater indifference, or at least less conviction. Over the following days, Elías seems to realise that he is probably not a good man.
Not everyone believes in his amnesia. It turns out that memory loss used to be a tactic he’d get his clients to plead, in order to get out of tight spots and misdeeds. The darkness deepens. His niece, Ana Saura (Susana Abaitua), is missing. Traces of her blood are found in his car. He is now a suspect in her disappearance, and maybe even murder.
One would imagine this man to be wholly unsympathetic, dislikeable, but he is instead charismatic, desirable. The attraction comes from something hidden within him; perhaps his ability to seem so self-contained, observant, and inscrutable. He has a strange hold over others.
The camera prowls around him, in the same way his own mind prowls around other people’s minds, the camera scrutinising his face, his eyes scanning for opportunities to win over his opponents. A new character arrives on the scene, and he is, for now, seen through her eyes, with the glow of her past love. She is Eva Durán (Aida Folch), a talented young lawyer, much younger than him. We learn she is an orphan, and that Elías has been involved in her life for a very long time. When she was a child, he helped her. Later, she was a student of his, and they had a short-lived but intense affair, which neither forgot.
Still ensconced in the fog of his amnesia, she is the only person he recognises – he does not even remember his own young daughter Julieta (Noa Fontanals), it seems. The love between Juan Elías and Eva Durán reignites. He wants to jettison that dark past self that everyone keeps reminding him about. He wants a break from that unknown former unpleasant self. Or so he says. It is tempting to believe in him, and to believe that Eva Durán is the key to his salvation, the opportunity to start a new life.
Eva Durán, as the lover, is beautiful but far from a femme fatale; she is earnest and cares more about the truth than her own self-preservation; her dark pixie haircut is reminiscent of Jean Seberg’s in A Bout de Souffle, but her moral character is one of integrity, not blithe indifference. If she were ever to betray her lover, it would be for moral reasons, and with great regret.
Her internal struggle is also the viewer’s. Can he be trusted? Does he truly love her? Is he involved in his niece’s disappearance? Eva Durán perhaps idealises a man with feet of clay. For a long while, through many episodes, the camera shows him almost as she wishes him to be. The chemistry between them seems overwhelming. But then things shift.
An immense cast of characters comes into view, each of them finely honed, a delight to watch as the ante is upped and revelation after revelation cascade in quick succession, each time pushing the tale into a different direction, and each time satisfyingly so. It doesn’t matter if sometimes things seem a bit of stretch – somehow, it still works.
It’s a small world, that Barcelona legal world, where everyone knows each other, and has grown up or studied together. The lines between criminals, lawyers, judges, and the police seem suddenly very thin – even more so since so many of them are somehow related as either family or lovers, past or present.
Juan Elías’s colleagues Marta Hess (Eva Santolaria) and Ricardo Heredia (Antonio Dechent) are magnificent pantomime accomplices, except that in this rollicking panorama of distrust one never knows whose side anyone is on. Are they friend or foe?
Marta Hess is certainly a villain, and ruthlessly focused on her own advancement. She is both lawyer and scruple-less fixer. She prances about in her black leather jacket, gloriously on the rampage, ruthless, biting, sarcastic, whip-smart. And she keeps shifting allegiances, as her interests are best served by one, then the other.
For Heredia, one has to wait and see, before his character and motivations become clear. When he re-introduces himself to the amnesiac Elías, it is as his friend, his law partner, and as his lawyer. How long for? What is friendship worth, in that world? How far can it be pushed?
The beauty of I Know Who You Are is how it plays around with, and stresses, the bonds of family, friendship and love. It is a vast chess game, each move a strategic choice in which some form of morality, however twisted, is always factored in, and degrees of loyalty are set out in ranking order. Betrayal and loyalty are intertwined; it seems hard to believe, but in this tale, they are not opposites. They co-exist: it is possible to love and destroy at the same time, without qualms; to love and distrust, without sorrow. And love is a curious thing, here, and mostly a fool’s game fraught with mortal danger. The shades of grey roll into infinity.
At the heart of the series is that classical ambiguity around family – just like in the Greek tragedies. Family is chattel; love and ownership blur into each other. Who else is better placed to murder someone, than their own flesh and blood? In that way too, blood is thicker than water. It is a double-edged thing.
Time and again, each act of wrong-doing is predicated on the notion that family is all, that all each character does is based on an atavistic duty towards family. This presents a paradox. Elías and Alicia vandalise their children’s psyches, implicate them in wrong-doing, reasoning that this is in order to keep the family unit intact – but without any insight into one fundamental question: ultimately, for whose benefit is this? This is a conundrum. At the end of the series, one ultimate beneficiary emerges from the wreckage…perhaps.
It doesn’t help that the eldest child, their son Pol Elías Castro (Àlex Monner), does not seem too bright. He idolises his father and is ready to compromise himself for him; but each time a new revelation about his father occurs, his look of pained horror is hard to watch, and also, almost funny, because it keeps on happening and he keeps on not learning. When his parents speak to him, both of them smart and sophisticated, and deceive him once more, with kindness, looking at him with studied neutrality, it is hard not to imagine them thinking: what have we done to bring in the world such a thick child?
Well, it’s simple. They have traumatised him. Trauma does affect intelligence in some ways, and I Know Who You Are has built a world where all the offspring, all the younger people, turn out either traumatised, or devious. It’s a generational gift. Philip Larkin would have loved this story.
I Know Who You Are manages several superb circus acts. One is the brilliant narrative structure – throughout most of the series, suspense remains taut, through red herrings, diversions, and ever deepening levels of revelations. Where most films rely on just one major reveal, I Know Who You Are embeds a whole succession – and one doesn’t become jaded, despite the series flagging slightly between episodes 11 and 13.
Another circus act is the juggling of so many key characters. Normally, storytelling advice is to bring to the fore just one main character, and to limit the number of characters around them to maybe four or five. Here, even if Elías is to some degree the central character, he is only just about so. He depends too much for his existence on other very strong characters. Of those, there are maybe a dozen, all instrumental, and even more milling about in the background. Yet the story is clear, the characters are each powerfully defined and credible. The dialogue written for each of them is bespoke, clearly differentiated psychologically, and always gripping. These are all very fine actors, there is not one wrong note.
The dialogues are also unfailingly spot-on. If Elías is great at calm, systematic, reasoned rebuttal, Alicia has consistently the best lines. Blanca Portillo, a veteran of Pedro Almodovar’s films, is by far the most versatile and powerful actor here in her role as Alicia Castro. Alicia is the tactician, the cool head, the one who calculates exactly where a conversation will head. Whereas other dialogues in the series are a matter of batting back and forth, the delivery of Alicia’s lines are a tour de force: one sentence, three clauses, a pause between each clause, and as each clause is said, one imagines a different outcome. She always has the last word – at the moment you believe her defeated, she regains the upper hand. But there is that weakness: the husband.
The final feat is how well, after all the suspense and somersaults during what turns out to be a mere fortnight of insanity, the series falls on its feet. The end feels deeply satisfying. All the important loose ends are tied up, the mystery is solved, the series title is explained, and yet the grand finale end is still open enough to know it’s not really over yet…
I Know Who You Are is gorgeously shot, in muted autumnal colours which match the season during which the story is set. The camera moves smoothly, circling around Elías, watching intently. There is a compelling intensity to the camera work – which includes substantial use of Steadicam, and the moody tones are reinforced by Arnau Bataller’s richly textured music. The production and sound design are highly effective in conveying the ambivalence and sense of jeopardy running throughout the story.
If equilibrium has been restored, it is obvious it won’t be for long. Alicia Castro is such an implacably smart woman, with a survival instinct to match her husband’s. Her flash of clarity, in the final scenes, as she catches a news report on a tv screen, might well lead to another bout of tempestuous disequilibrium. The Elías-Castro family and their acolytes live in too crazy a world, and there are just too many skeletons in the multiple cupboards of their gorgeous modernist home.
If they managed so much chaos and destruction in the course of just two short weeks one melancholy early autumn, one wonders how they will manage to keep out of trouble until Christmas.
All episodes of I Know Who You Are are currently available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
Series created by Pau Freixas
Cinematography: Julián Elizalde, Gris Jordana
Music: Arnau Bataller
Cast: Francesc Garrido, Blanca Portillo, Aida Folch, Carles Francino, Antonio Dechent, Nancho Novo, Eva Santolaria, Martiño Rivas, Àlex Monner, Noa Fontanals, Mar Sodupe, Susana Abaitua, Marcel Borràs, Nausicaa Bonnin