Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis. That’s quite a mouthful. And a rather scary one, as the Charlize Theron-produced, Gerard Barrett-directed film Brain on Fire sets out to prove. One of the rarer and lesser known diseases of the brain, the condition mainly affects
young women, and one of such survivors is at the centre of the action: Susannah Cahalan has got it all: the pretty twenty-something New Yorker comes from a well-off background, has a cute musician boyfriend, and works as a young reporter for a large New York newspaper. Things look perfect – when suddenly, without rhyme or reason, Cahalan starts hearing and imagining things, acting unpredictably. Misdiagnosed by baffled GPs and clinicians, Cahalan rapidly descends into what looks like epilepsy, schizophrenia and psychosis, finally entering a catatonic state. And then Dr House appears, connects the dots, prescribes the medicine, and saves the day. Happy end.
No doubt, the fact that this story is based on reality, makes it noteworthy. Cahalan went through this ordeal in 2009 and wrote her memoir in 2012, two years after the daughter of a friend of mine had been diagnosed with the same disease on the 1st of December 2010. For S___, Cahalan’s memoir came too late, so to speak, but luckily she had had the fortune of being seen by doctors who were aware of Anti-NMDAR Encephalitis even at that early stage. The road up to this diagnosis had been tough – and I remember the overwhelming feelings of horror, helplessness, worry and frustration that even I as a bystander felt when reading my friend’s regular updates about S___’s worrying condition. And nothing I have seen in BoF mirrors that existential fear, or the rollercoaster journey veering between hope and despair that I witnessed when my friend’s family went through the same ordeal.
BoF the film is told in a straight-forward way, essentially recording the time-line of events from on-set to recovery. Avoiding all aesthetic gimmicks, the film chooses to cast a quasi-documentary eye on the plot. That may be a good idea in terms of respecting the RL authority and sensibilities of the story, but it results in a major flaw: The story becomes an impersonal case-study and neglects to make the audience properly identify with or feel for the protagonist. The unexciting linear storytelling fails to provide highs and lows; instead, it flatlines into an endless observation of misery which only receives a denouement at its happy end.
It doesn’t help that the main characters appear as stereotypes – the bouncy young journalist. The divorced parents – housewife mother, ex-banker dad. The slightly hapless boyfriend – an artist. The aloofly-condescending doctors. And *one* “demi-God dressed in white”. While the family unit lacks in depth and definition, it strangely appears as if only the lesser secondary characters have been given a little bit more human contradiction – a tough-nut work-mate who actually shows emotion when faced with the unresponsive friend in hospital; the hard-hitting newsman boss who shows a lot of understanding rather than fire his unreliable cub reporter; the junior doctor in hospital who is not convinced of the diagnosis and brings in the eventual “saviour” of the piece. But for the audience to “connect” with the story, there is not enough emotional depth conveyed by the main characters in the film – a pity as a medical drama usually provides such in spades.
This could have been achieved by giving BoF a richer narration from a post-event point-of-view. After all, with the main protagonist out of action for most of the film, we never get her view as the disease is happening to her. A commentary from the POV of Cahalan – or more believably: from her father, who is shown as the only passionate advocate for his sick child – would have helped the viewer to understand the despair and the frustration of the situation. Daddy Cahalan shows *some* spirit at least (even though I found some of his ire directed at the poor boyfriend after Susannah’s first episode rather misspent), raising his voice, demanding more effort and insisting on alternatives to the psychiatric diagnoses.
Richard Armitage as Tom Cahalan is well-cast and ably conveys the passionate protectiveness of a parent. Although the movie does not go into detail over the supposed difficult relationship between him and his daughter (which was mentioned off-set), Armitage fills the (limited) scope that this role provides – as a caring, worried father who is prepared to push on his daughter’s behalf. Mummy Cahalan comes off slightly less well – providing the opposite to her vehement ex-husband by being calm, reconciling and almost dispassionate throughout. If that was what the script wanted, then Carrie Ann Moss played it well. As a couple, the two actors were certainly well matched, and ably carry the plot. Which is just as well because Chloe Grace Moretz did not fully convince me in her role. She was good once she had to act catatonia – although that sounds much like a back-handed comment. But her ever-present pout otherwise looked inappropriate for a supposedly independent woman in her mid-twenties, and in her talking scenes, I often felt that she was overacting.
Overall, this medical drama looks more like documentary on the search for a good doctor, than a film about the search for a diagnosis. Of course, the knight in shining armour turns up in the end, just in time, to save Cahalan before the disease can leave lasting effects. How he manages to connect the dots, we are not shown. Maybe it’s too difficult for a lay audience to understand.
But showing the mere mechanics of a progressing illness and the wondrous diagnosis at the end is also not enough to provide proper insight into the human drama connected with such an ordeal. For me, the material just doesn’t lend itself to a feature film as it lacks the suspenseful up and down of a story. Illness as a mystery element can be intriguing – but not if the main character inspires too little emotional understanding and investment from the audience despite an hour and a half of hallucinating and spasming. It all could have been done in half the time – only that that would’ve deprived those of us, who are firm believers in watching any Armitage plot, of some nice new headcanons: daddy!Armitage, DIY!Armitage. fierce-protection-mode!Armitage is always a joy to watch, after all.
PS: Like Cahalan, S___ made a full recovery in a relatively short time. She is now married and has a two-year-old daughter. My friend went on to establish the first German self-help organisation for families dealing with Anti-NMDAR-Encephalitis. She celebrates every 1st of December.