Before I Go to Sleep
Memory: it's an integral element to our definition of who we are. In our lives, most of us forget far more than we remember, but our ability to recall events, faces, and names forms the building blocks of our identity. It's no surprise, therefore, that movie thrillers enjoy playing with the concept of amnesia. The amnesiac can be an ideal choice for a protagonist because his or her background is shrouded in mystery. Unfortunately, too many of these movies devolve into exploitation flicks more concerned with cheap twists than the visceral suspense that can result from a serious consideration of the situation. Were it not for the participation of two A-list actors, Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, Before I Go to Sleep would have been headed straight to video. The inclusion of those two doesn't make the film any better, just less anonymous.
The dubious premise requires that the viewer suspend disbelief, but that's not unreasonable. As a result of something that happened to her about ten years ago, Christine (Kidman) awakens every morning with no recent memories. Although she's 40 years old, she thinks she's in her early 20s, meaning that the last 16+ years of her life have been wiped from her mind (or are at least inaccessible). Her loving, long-suffering husband, Ben (Firth), does what he can to help her every morning with a wall of photographs that provide a summary of who he is, what they are to one another, etc. She also has a "secret" psychiatrist, Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), who encourages her to keep a video diary. He calls her every morning to tell her where to find the camera. As Christine begins to recapture glimpses of her past, questions emerge. Who is the mysterious red-haired woman she was close to? Is her condition the result of a car accident or an attack? Is Dr. Nasch as benevolent as he seems? And is Ben just a devoted husband or something else?
For a while, Before I Go to Sleep keeps us involved as writer/director Rowan Joffe (adapting from S.J. Watson's novel) spins his web. As with all films involving amnesiac protagonists, it's fun trying to piece together the truth and differentiate fact from fiction. To its credit, Before I Go to Sleep doesn't go overboard with its plot contortions. Christine doesn't turn out to be a MI5 operative and there are no quick-fix medicines that return her history in a rush. But that doesn't mean the resolution is satisfying. The film's last third is a case study in how not to make a movie like this. Character motivations make little sense. Narrative logic is thrown out the window and plot holes are plugged with throwaway lines that, when considered, often seem arbitrary.
Kidman and Firth are on hand to collect paychecks. Both actors have won Academy Awards but their performances here are closer to "mail it in" than Oscar caliber. Kidman is more disappointing than Firth because her interpretation of Christine is flat and uninvolving. Firth remains on the periphery for most of the film, although he does a reasonable job highlighting the two potential sides of Ben's character: dutiful husband or manipulator. One could argue that the nature of the story contributes to the lack of emotional connection between the leads but it's off-putting. When passion finally emerges in the last reel, it feels contrived and unnatural.
Joffe wisely doesn't ape Christopher Nolan's approach in the brilliantly executed Memento (to do so would have invited unfavorable comparisons) but his sure-handed (albeit conventional) approach to the material only goes far enough to make the setup compelling. Before I Go to Sleep is on solid ground when laying the framework and asking questions. It goes off the rails when it starts providing resolutions. There are twists aplenty but not sufficient tension or sustained suspense to cover up the fissures that widen as the movie progresses. Although the story is all about memory, the film itself is forgettable.
© 2014 James Berardinelli