The basic outline of this would-be thriller by Rowan Joffe, on a screenplay he adapted from an S.J. Watson novel, is in fact simple. Christine (Nicole Kidman), having suffered some heretofore unknown accident, loses her memory when she wakes up every morning. Her mind cannot hold on to what has recently happened, and so when she rises, she reverts back some 20 years earlier, and is naturally confused and distressed.
It’s a set-up so base yet so ripe with possibilities, especially with an opening that finds Christine questioning her husband, receiving a call from a doctor, and finding a video camera where she has stored personal testimonials to help her future self make sense of things.
I should say ‘apparent’ husband and ‘apparent’ doctor, and maybe even ‘apparent’ testimonial, as we are made to feel, and thankfully so, more than a bit suspicious of everyone and everything. Her bloodshot eye fills the screen as the film opens, and a sense of dread looms. She is naked next to a man she doesn’t know, and a trip to the bathroom sees Christine greeted with a collage of photos and an overwhelming sense of confusion.
All of this is established deftly in the first few moments of the few, getting underway a brisk story with plenty of potential.
What’s even more promising is that after establishing Christine’s particularly real dilemma (as well as the struggle by Firth’s Mike being married to her), is that we quickly go back in time, meeting Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong) and his clandestine tests attempting (apparently) to help. Thus, we have a fiercely independent yet mentally and emotionally lost woman, we have two men attempting to look out for her (or say they say), and we have a narrative structure that promises tension and revelation.
We proceed forward from the moment Christine decides to record her daily, telling her future self anything she has learned that day about her murky past or uncertain present. It’s a great device, and mixed in with some chaotic flashbacks – or maybe misconstrued memories – we feel the confusion and distress Christine feels.
Unfortunately, what follows is never as exciting as it could and indeed should be. This three character play is entirely plot driven, and lacks the fortitude to present anything provocative. It’s less about what these people are thinking and more about what they are doing and have done, making it nothing more than a pedestrian mystery. It’s a scary premise, but is too caught up in formula and procedure, moving towards what is a predictable and plausible ‘shock.’
Firth, Strong, and Kidman, however, are all impressive, all at times completely sympathetic and at others utterly suspicious. They propel the mystery more than anything else; clearly something is going on, but none of them are going to give it up too quickly. Kidman amazes as someone who so quickly has to recalibrate everything she knows; or rather, everything she thinks she knows. She can’t even trust herself.
The world Christine inhabits is effectively unsettling too: she resides in a sizable, lonely house off a quiet street without any visible neighbors. The English days are rainy and gray, and whenever she wanders outside, it seems that danger is lurking, presenting itself loudly and suddenly.
Even that grows tiresome though; Christine is rightfully confused, and her ailment is one that can produce a lot of troubling circumstances. It’s just too bad that the story goes for the momentary jarring rather than the effectively chilling. Nothing here lingers when it’s gone.
This middlebrow offering will make cinephiles wish they were watching Christopher Nolan’s Memento. It too followed a character that was suffering from short term memory loss, but in every way is the superior, not only unfolding in an elaborative structure, but forcing the audience to question motives and purpose in life.
Before I Go to Sleep asks nothing of its viewing audience other than to forego 90 minutes of their day. It’s efficient to be sure, but it becomes clear in the final third that there really isn’t much here to begin with at all, that this simple story is lacking depth, rushing towards its rather absurd and especially cheesy finale.
It’s not that you wish you could have forgotten watching Before I Go to Sleep; it just stands to be far more compelling than it is.
While it boasts an impressive cast and a promising premise, Before I Go to Sleep suffers from a lack of imagination and conviction, resulting in a mediocre mystery thriller.