Aside from a strong screenplay and very impressive directorial flourishes, the film boasts a terrific cast.
Despite the well-worn terrain of the story, Before I Go to Sleep is a very clever thriller that, if you haven’t read the S.J. Watson novel on which the movie is based, will likely surprise you in a number of ways. Director Rowan Joffe, who adapted Watson’s novel for the screen, is very sly behind the camera, revealing and then immediately obscuring bits of information like a magician’s expert sleight-of-hand maneuvers.
Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) wakes up every morning with no memory of the last 20 years of her life, including meeting and marrying her husband Ben (Colin Firth), and the traumatic attack that led to her brain injury. Ben, who has been caring for Christine for years, does his best to acclimate her—every morning—to their life together and the scope of her amnesia. Their house has pockets of information to remind her (wedding pictures, favorite things to do, allergies) that Christine encounters anew every day.
When Ben leaves for work, though, we discover that Christine has been meeting with Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), a neuropsychologist who has been treating her for several weeks. Under his care, Christine has started to get glimpses and snippets of memories, some of which contradict the life Ben says she has. Christine begins to question Ben and the “truth” he tells her every morning. But Dr. Nasch also seems to have ulterior motives for helping her, leading Christine to wonder who, if anyone, she can trust.
Outside of daytime soap operas, Hollywood movies are the guiltiest when it comes to over-reliance on amnesia as a plot device. While the condition is a naturally intriguing tool for storytelling, the regularity with which we see it employed in movies is exhausting. Before I Go to Sleep, though, doesn’t feel stale and has more than a few surprises, owing to Watson’s novel and ingenious use of character development. Joffe has stripped down the novel to its bare bones without losing any of the mystery or suspense that makes it so engaging. The movie’s plot unfolds rather seamlessly, each new bit of information being unleashed on the audience with barely any recovery time. Like Christine, we’re trying to make sense of a world that feels contradictory and false. Joffe handles the film’s mystery with expert care, never overplaying a moment for the sake of suspense.
Aside from a strong screenplay and very impressive directorial flourishes, Before I Go to Sleep boasts a terrific cast, which is how Joffe is able to unleash as many surprises and twists as he does. Kidman gives Christine a sense of grounding that might be lost with another actor. From the start, Christine is never a victim; she is a detective piecing together clues with a natural (and appropriate) sense of skepticism. Kidman manages to play early morning “blank slate” Christine identically in scene after scene, but as the film progresses and Christine’s understanding grows, we see her evolution through Kidman’s incredibly expressive face. Even though she is the same person, Christine’s personality shifts through the film and Kidman handles the variability wonderfully.
Without giving too much away, Firth is fantastic and plays Ben in a way we’ve never seen him before. Ben is Christine’s only link to reality, so she must choose to either trust him or believe everything he says is a lie. Firth’s ambiguity throughout the film is why the movie works so well. Though he has always been a strong actor, Firth is not known for this type of role and the audience will be surprised by how far he can stretch himself.
Before I Go to Sleepis a wickedly smart mystery. The cast, script, and direction are all top notch and much more impressive than the typical amnesia-based movies we’ve seen in the past. | Matthew Newlin