Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, and Mark Strong all turn in some fine acting work in Before I Go to Sleep, a British film adaptation of the 2011 bestselling mystery novel by S.J. Watson. It’s too bad those fine performances are trapped in a film that’s anything but engaging in terms of execution. It feels overly long, dreary, and by the end unoriginal in comparison to other, far better cinematic thrillers.
Kidman stars as Christine Lucas, a woman suffering from a form of anterograde amnesia wherein when she wakes up each morning, she wakes with no memory of what’s happened the past 14 years. She believes she’s 27 when she’s actually 40. She doesn’t recognize the man next to her in bed as her husband, Ben (Colin Firth). She has no recollection of their married life together, or any emotional connection to the many photos of their life together that Ben has affixed to the walls of their home to serve as reminders. According to Ben, who must re-introduce himself and their lives together to her each morning, her condition is the result of an accident and a blow to the head. She’s seen doctors, but no treatment has ever helped. Half her life has gone by, and she must simply accept that this is the way it will always be.
One day, however, she receives a call from a man calling himself Dr. Nash (Mark Strong), who instructs her to look for an object hidden in a shoebox at the back of her wardrobe. The object is a camera which, as Dr. Nash explains, she’s has been using each day to record a video diary to record her experiences and any flashes of memory she might experience without Ben’s knowledge. The recordings begin to reveal a pattern of lies and deceptions centered around Ben and the life he would have her believe they’ve lived together. When confronted, he insists that any lies he might have told were to protect her from pain, but just how much can she trust him, or anyone, for that matter? Faced with living out each day of the rest of her life in fear, confusion, and mistrust, Christine fights to discover the truth, and for a way to hold on to her connections to everything she holds dear beyond her waking hours.
Writer/director Rowan Joffé (2010’s The American) makes a good number of changes from S.J. Watson’s original novel, perhaps the most prominent of which is making Christine’s diary a video diary through use of the camera rather than a written diary. The choice is an effective one, as it provides opportunities for Kidman to truly explore in a visual way the full range of emotions that her character experiences as she uncovers her forgotten life’s mistakes, betrayals, and tragedies over and over again, each time reacting to them a slightly different way as the circumstances of her making the discoveries changes. It’s a role that calls from control and nuance, and arguably the film’s strongest asset is Kidman in the lead completely in command of the material.
In terms of Kidman’s male co-stars, Colin Firth, working with Kidman for the second time after last year’s The Railway Man, is also called upon to convey a considerable range of emotion and dynamism as the film progresses. His and Kidman’s scenes together are fraught with palpable tension and increasing dread as the film progresses, and it’s interesting to watch the two push each other to their limits. Rounding out the trio of leads, Mark Strong, so often cast as the heavy in big budget American films and more recently in auto manufacturer Jaguar’s “Villains” ad campaign, excels in a role that requires a softer touch, but still retains the potential for duplicity. His character doesn’t get nearly the development that Kidman and Firth’s do, but he makes what he’s given memorable.
But all that hard work by the principals is undermined by the use of tired, overused genre techniques thrown in to keep viewers on edge — a truck loudly screaming by just before a character lost in thought takes a step into the street, creaking stairs on a darkened staircase, flashbacks to violence executed in grainy, jarring jumpcuts — and an ending heavily reworked from the source material that feels overly lengthy and sentimental. The end result is a work that’s not horrible by any means, but is far less than the sum and the potential of its parts. Again, it will perhaps remind you of far better thrillers in which the twists and turns were more effectively carried out, and make you wish Before I Go to Sleep featured some of those films innovation and verve.
Score: 3 out of 5
Before I Go to Sleep
Starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Anne-Marie Duff. Directed by Rowan Joffé.
Running Time: 92 minutes
Rated R for some brutal violence and language.