LOS ANGELES (AP) — Reteamed once again with Colin Firth, 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 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. This is because she is suffering from atypical psychogenic amnesia, which means ever since she endured severe head trauma 13 years ago, she can’t 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, 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, 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. 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. Ben insists that Claire move abroad after the accident
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 will feel they’re being prodded to be more suspicious. After all, he’s played by Mark Strong, a bad guy in so many films.
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.
OK, now 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 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,” but then again despite the fact that she’s the story’s anchoring consciousness, the script doesn’t really flesh out her character all that much.
Joffe has something of a knack for 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.
“Before I Go to Sleep,” a Clarius Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some brutal violence and language.” Running time: 92 minutes.
MPAA rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.