Before I Go to Sleep
Posted October 31, 2014 by Daniel Hodgson in
Before I Go to Sleep is a good film that ends on a bad note, but it has its merits, unquestionably. It is well-shot, well-acted, and well-directed, and it has a solid dramatic core.
Up until the film’s last act, I was prepared to give Before I Go to Sleep an enthusiastic recommendation. The film has a strong cast, Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, and Mark Strong, all of whom are in impressive form. The cinematography creates a dark, moody atmosphere that’s appropriate for a suspense thriller, and suspenseful it is. And then comes the big twist.
Kidman portrays Christine, an amnesiac who can’t form new memories, like Leonard from Memento. She remembers today, and today alone. Tomorrow, she will wake up and forget everything from the day before.
One morning, there’s a man in her bedroom. He (Colin Firth) explains that he’s her husband, Ben. He’s explained that to her every day for the past 10 years since a car accident stole her memories.
When he goes off to work, leaving Christine by herself, the phone rings. The voice on the phone explains that he’s Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), whom her husband hadn’t mentioned at all that morning. The voice tells her to look for a camcorder in her wardrobe, on which Christine has been videotaping herself to serve as memories of what she’s forgotten. Nasch (if that’s who he says he is) explains that it wasn’t an accident—she was attacked. Who can she trust, the man she doesn’t remember, or the man she doesn’t know?
Twists and turns follow for the next hour. Christine knows nothing about herself, yet Ben hides things from her, like that she had a close friend, Claire (Anne-Marie Duff). Why would he keep her closest friend from her? Questions and the search for answers drive a mystery, and uncertainty creates suspense.
Kidman and Firth have remarkable chemistry together, and their scenes are well directed by Rowan Joffe at his second time at the helm of a feature film. Clearly, he’s an actor’s director. I was especially struck by a scene in which Christine comes to understand the depth of Ben’s patience and understanding under the most trying of circumstances. It’s a scene of deep emotional resonance realized by two of the finest actors out there, both Oscar winners.
The film runs into trouble when it services the needs of the suspense genre, which necessitates putting the protagonist in real, physical danger. The struggle at the climax is staged with unintentional silliness. The showdown goes on much, much too long, awkwardly and clumsily.
Kidman walks in a daze through much of the film, and the editing has touches of surrealism in its dissolves and dream-sequences. Freud asserted that dreams and nightmares are the fulfillment of desires and fears. A dream is what you want to happen, a bad dream is what you’re afraid will happen. Before I Go to Sleep could be read as a nightmare of androphobia, in how the men in Christine’s life manipulate her, control her, lie to her, and possibly do violence to her, physically and sexually. Or, it could be a misogynist’s fantasy; she’s the perfect victim, forgetting and forgiving. Which one it is – is a matter of perspective, but necessarily, it’s both. One mirrors the other.
In the context of a dream, anything can happen. It does not require plausibility. However, there is a clear distinction between reality and fantasy in the film, and the reality lacks believability. The final twist that precedes the climax requires more suspension of disbelief than I could give it. People do not behave this way, and the premise it reveals relies heavily on multiple coincidences.
Before I Go to Sleep is a good film that ends on a bad note, but it has its merits, unquestionably. It is well-shot, well-acted, and well-directed, and it has a solid dramatic core. I have mixed feelings about it, but it’s a mixture of admiration and disappointment, a bittersweet tonic.