Dr. Burgess rehearses telling a patient about his terminal diagnosis, stumbling over his words. But as he practices what he will say, his own feelings about his mortality and illness begin to surface as well, and the encounter takes on unexpected depth for both doctor and patient.
Writer-director Ben Price’s short drama is an exercise in masterful economy, reducing cinematic storytelling to its most essential elements: an intensely emotional and compelling performance, and an arc about the piercing of awareness between past memory and present moment.
The central guiding element is both a revealing, vulnerable and charismatic performance by “Coronation Street” actor Ian Puleston-Davies as the doctor. Though the action is simple — a doctor planning out what he will say — Puleston-Davies manages to make each beat specific and precise, and the audience witnesses how a professional facade melts away as he confronts his own sadness, grief and pain over his own mortality.
Like the action and storytelling, the camerawork likewise emphasizes simplicity, keeping to the most part on one single shot and take.
The approach is highly intimate and almost confrontational: in a world that often averts its gaze from pain, the camera doesn’t let the audience look away as Dr. Burgess confronts his task at hand.
But as he unravels with each “rehearsal,” viewers see deeper. We see not just a doctor trying to fulfill his professional duty, but a man who understands the weight of the message he is delivering, as well as the impact of the situation on his own understanding of self. He becomes not just a doctor, but a fellow human being who must be there for another — and who also sees himself reflected in another’s pain.
Intensely focused and emotionally raw, “I’m Sorry to Tell You” demonstrates that an unflinching commitment to both its story and its execution can be riveting, even when stripped down to the most elemental aspects of cinematic narrative. It’s an approach that fits what storytellers call a “naked moment” — a sharp crystallization of awareness in which consciousness shifts and a person has changed in some way. Here, it’s a change brought about when we are called to bear witness to and for one another during life’s most difficult moments — and when we look at another fellow human and see ourselves, in all our suffering and finiteness.