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Reteamed once again with Colin Firth, her co-star in The Railway Man, Nicole Kidman stars as an amnesia victim whose brain resets back to 13 years ago after each night’s slumber in the decidedly average psychological thriller Before I Go to Sleep. Writer-director Rowan Joffe’s adaptation of S.J. Watson’s bestseller honors the lurid spirit of the page-turner enough to satisfy fans, but he doesn’t transmute the material into something richer and deeper the way, say, Alfred Hitchcock could, despite the film’s many Hitchcockian nods. Opening in Britain on Sept. 5 and then Stateside in October, this should generate fairly sweet box-office dreams in relation to its budget, but is unlikely to gain awards traction for either lead.
The film opens with an extreme close-up on the bloodshot eye of Christine Lucas (Kidman), a woman who wakes up every morning and doesn’t recognize her own bedroom, the man in the bed next to her (Firth) or even her own 40-year-old face since in her own head she’s still 27. This is because she is suffering from atypical psychogenic amnesia, which means ever since she suffered a severe head trauma 13 years ago she struggles to store memories of anything that’s happened since the accident. She can retain a day’s events in her mind until she goes to sleep, but after a night the slate’s wiped clean again.
With a weary patience that suggests he’s explained the situation many times before, the man in the bed reveals that he is Christine’s husband Ben, and that she had an accident which caused her amnesia. When Ben goes off to work (he teaches high school), the phone rings and a man calling himself Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong) explains to Christine that he’s a neuropsychologist who’s been helping with her memory disorder. He instructs her on where to find a camera in her closet on which she’s recorded a video diary over the last two weeks, prompting an extended flashback to illustrate what she’s learned so far.
It turns out there’s quite a lot that Ben hasn’t been telling Christine. For a start, it wasn’t an accident that caused her amnesia, but a brutal violent attack from an unknown assailant, flash-cut memories of which start to emerge as the days go on. Also, Christine learns she had a very close friend named Claire (Anne-Marie Duff), whom she starts to remember when Dr. Nasch shows her a picture he found in her medical file. Ben insists that Claire moved abroad after the accident, but it turns she’s still very much still within commuting distance and keen to see her old buddy.
Christine catches up on what she’s learned from the diary each day, and starts to twig that Ben is not the gentle, doting husband he seems to be. Meanwhile, she finds herself attracted to Dr. Nasch, but while she may think he’s the swoony savior sort, viewers trained in genre conventions will feel they’re being prodded to be more suspicious. After all, he favors the use of a creepy, leaky car park; he seems to have a permanent two-day stubble; and, worst of all, he’s played by Mark Strong, a bad guy in so many films (see, for instance, Kick-Ass, or Zero Dark Thirty, or John Carter… the list is long.)
This is the sort of film where it’s difficult to discuss the performances without giving away the big twists, so those super sensitive to anything that’s faintly spoiler-ish should stop reading now.
Okay, now, that they’ve gone, it can be said that one of the film’s minor virtues is how it plays with casting, exploiting expectations audiences have around actors like Strong and Firth. It works especially well with Firth, who in the semiotics of British cinema especially is the very apogee of cuddly male rectitude and moral probity. Here, however, he shows off a dark side that’s shocking even for viewers who have read the book already.
That said, the film isn’t a massive repertoire-stretch for Kidman who has played this sort of vulnerable woman-on-the-edge many times before. There’s not the same nuance here that she displayed in, say, The Others or Birth, roles which are in the same roomy wheelhouse as this one, but then again despite the fact that she’s the story’s anchoring consciousness the script doesn’t flesh actually out her character all that much.
As his last feature, Brighton Rock, proved, Joffe has something of a knack from coaxing bad performances from usually good actors. There’s less damage this time to the cast’s reputation, but still he shows a singular lack of originality when it comes to the thriller mechanics, falling back on huge soundtrack surges to generate shocks and suspense, and leaving cinematographer Ben Davis and production designer Kave Quinn to do the heavy lifting when it comes to building atmosphere.
It’s a shame because this is exactly the kind of trashy read of a book that in the hands of the right director could have been elevated into something really special with its peculiarly female take on paranoia and anxieties about domesticity, aging, memory and identity.
Production companies: Clarius Entertainment presents a Scott Free, Millennium Films production in association with Studiocanal
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Anne-Marie Duff, Dean-Charles Chapman, Adam Levy
Director: Rowan Joffe
Screenwriter: Rowan Joffe, based on the novel by S.J. Watson
Producers: Liza Marshall, Mark Gill, Matthew James O’Toole
Executive producers: Ridley Scott, Avi Lerner. Trevor Short, Boaz Davidson, John Thompson
Director of photography: Ben Davis
Production designer: Kave Quinn
Costume designer: Michele Clapton
Editors: Melanie Ann Oliver
Music: Ed Shearmur
Rated 15 (in the U.K.), 92 minutes
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