The problem with Before I Go to Sleep is that it lacks possibilities. The film focuses on Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman), an anteretrograde amnesiac who wakes up each morning having forgotten everything she knows. There to guide her each morning is her husband Ben (Colin Firth), a teacher, who helps her regain some semblance of a past lost to her in a brutal attack ten years beforehand. The other person in Christine’s life – unable as she is to functionally work – becomes Dr. Nash (Mark Strong), a neurologist attempting to help Christine unlock her lost memories. Dr. Nash insists Christine keep his work with her from Ben, and instructs her to use a secret camera to record what she knows every night before she goes to sleep.
Before I Go to Sleep is the sophomore feature from writer-director Rowan Joffé, who does what he can in adapting S.J. Watson’s bestseller of the same name. The film bears the generic tagline “Don’t. Trust. Anyone”, and this lack of personality is reflected in the story, which has such a narrow space in which to operate that it has a deficit of surprises.
Much of the build-up to revealing how and when Christine became an amnesiac feels somewhat superfluous once the film finally tells all. And because of the nature of the story, the Christine character cannot be defined by anything other than dribs and drabs of information. This leaves Kidman, one of our most expressive actresses, to craft a kind of tetchy fragility that corresponds to the film’s shaky narrative progression.
And yet, this is the kind of film that could power suburbs with the eyerolls of plausibility sticklers, not least because of its relative predictability. Her attacker can ultimately only be one of two people, and a coin flip doesn’t make for a particularly interesting outcome. Fortunately, Kidman is magnetic enough a presence – even just close-ups of her eyes are fascinating – that even just a solid performance by her lofty standards keeps the film watchable.
And when the reveal comes, the film becomes a hyper-violent, arguably exploitative spectacle thoroughly at odds with the rest of the film. Christine is trapped in a domestic space between two men of highly respected professions – a doctor and an educator – so when the climactic sequence involves a shot of an iron and a blow to the head just as blunt, it feels like Joffé has called bingo having only crossed off three numbers.
Firth and Strong are never bad, so their performances here are fine. Joffé seems to have assumed that the borderline Grand guignol third act is the most important element of the story, when it’s the film’s lower register which proves the most effective, particularly in a brief reunion between Christine and estranged friend Claire (Anne-Marie Duff), which nevertheless ends in a disappointing contrivance.
Before I Go to Sleep is a strange film unsure of its purpose, teetering somewhere between promise, mediocrity and exploitation. By the time the credits roll and all is revealed, it remains unclear what the answers even mean.
[rating=2] and a half
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.