Before I Go to Sleep, film review: Conventional storytelling cries out for more imagination

Film risks becoming caught in a no-man’s land between twisted genre fare and straightforward, star-driven dram

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The Independent Culture

Before I Go to Sleep is the type of thriller that, a generation ago, Alfred Hitchcock might have made. Based on the bestselling 2011 novel by SJ Watson, its plot is in a similar vein to the Boileau-Narcejac stories that inspired Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as well as Eyes without a Face and Les Diaboliques.

Like such predecessors, it has a very attenuated sense of reality. Its dream-like quality is made clear in the very first shot, a huge close-up of the eye of its main character Christine (Nicole Kidman), and in the frequent use of flashbacks.

Christine doesn’t know who she is. Thanks to some unspecified trauma in the past, she has suffered acute memory loss. Every day, she stores up information about herself and her past life but every night, as she goes to sleep, this information is erased. “Who are you?” Christine asks the man she discovers in the apartment where she is living. “I’m your husband,” Ben (Colin Firth) replies.

This is a fascinating but frustrating film that suffers from its writer-director Rowan Joffé’s tentative approach to his material. He is not able to do justice to the richly layered and subtle performances of his two leads. As she showed in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, Kidman excels in playing characters with an unstable sense of identity. She captures her character’s sense of wonder, bafflement, curiosity and terror  (“I wish I wasn’t frightened all the time”) at her own condition.

Firth, meanwhile, enjoys a role which  enables him to stray a long way from Mr Darcy or his stammering Bertie in The King’s Speech. Here, he portrays a kindly husband but one with a dark side that he can’t altogether suppress. We are dropped hints  right from the outset that friendly, avuncular Ben might, in fact, be an absolute creep. So might Christine herself. If her mind is  damaged, it’s possible that she is imagining dangers where none exist.

 

One of the pleasures of thrillers such as this, based around memory loss, is that the protagonists can’t distinguish between their friends and enemies – and the audience, too, isn’t at all sure which characters to trust.

Before I Go to Sleep is a companion piece of sorts to The Railway Man (2013), the recent drama in which Firth and Kidman were also cast as a couple. In that film, his character was the haunted one – still traumatised by the memories of the abuse he endured as a prisoner of the Japanese in the Second World War. Here, she is the one suffering the nightmares.

There are multiple improbabilities in the plotting – but, then again, Vertigo is hardly a slice of straightforward realism, either. An absurdism comes with the territory. Tone is everything. For the film to work, Joffé needs to heighten the strangeness and to create as eerie an atmosphere as possible. If he allows this to turn into a conventional thriller, the spell will immediately be broken.

Early on, the film is unsettling and darkly comical. Every morning, Ben patiently tells Christine what has happened to her and informs her of how much he loves her. She seems happy enough to take him at his word.

Like Guy Pearce’s character in Christopher Nolan’s amnesiac thriller Memento, Kidman uses photos in a desperate attempt to anchor herself to reality. These remind her of her  supposedly happy married life to Ben. At the behest of Dr Nash (Mark Strong), a neuro- specialist who rings her every morning, she is also making a video diary to preserve her memories. Even so, the 40-year-old woman is caught in her own version of Groundhog Day, starting again from scratch every morning, with no recollection of her experiences from any time later than her early 20s.

Her condition allows the men around her to “edit” her life and to try to “fix” her, as if she is some precious ornament that needs mending. At its best, for example in the scene in which  Kidman discovers a key she hopes will unlock some of the mysteries surrounding her life, the film has the warped and disorienting feel of films such as Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon or, indeed, Vertigo.

It is fascinating to watch Kidman trying to piece together her own personality. There are hints that she had an affair before the trauma that caused her to lose her memory but she is convinced she is not the type of woman to cheat on her husband. She experiences the same shock of raw grief multiple times as she realises (again and again) that she has a child – and has no idea what has become of him.

Unfortunately, Joffé is also attempting to make a mainstream thriller. There is something banal and reductive about the explanations we are gradually given for the behaviour of characters whose actions initially seemed so mysterious.

Music and sound could have been used far more inventively to heighten the strangeness. The score here is nothing like as jarring, or as atmospheric, as those found in films such as Vertigo or Spellbound.

Before I Go to Sleep risks becoming caught in a no-man’s land between twisted genre fare and straightforward, star-driven drama. On a smaller budget, with less well-known actors, the film-makers might have been able to approach their material in a more stylised and experimental way.

Instead, as the sudden reversals and plot twists follow each other in rapid succession, the storytelling becomes more and more conventional. Rather than a multilayered drama about memory, bereavement and identity, it becomes just another crime story.

As in his debut feature, the Graham Greene adaptation Brighton Rock (2011), Joffé is stronger here on characterisation than he is at creating atmosphere or cranking up tension.

This isn’t the heady brew it could have been if it was made in a bolder, more visually imaginative way.

The film-makers don’t want to make the film too overwrought or melodramatic but the strategy backfires. Before I Go to Sleep is at its most preposterous precisely when it is trying its hardest to be serious.

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