Before I Go to Sleep

October 18, 2014
Nicole Kidman in 'Before I Go to Sleep' (2014)
Nicole Kidman in 'Before I Go to Sleep' (2014)

Rowan Joffé’s Before I Go to Sleep will inevitably suffer in comparison with David Fincher’s Gone Girl, which is currently blitzing the box office. Both films are based on best-selling novels, but the former, by British writer, S.J.Watson, is a more literary affair than Gillian Flynn’s ‘he said, she said’ page-turner. If Virginia Woolf had tried to write a thriller, it might have turned out something like Before I Go to Sleep, which is a completely interiorised novel filtered through the impressions of amnesiac, Christine Lucas.

The same comparison hold true for the film adaptations. Nicole Kidman, who plays Christine, is rarely off-screen. We see most of the story through her eyes, feeling her helplessness, confusion and frustration. As more pieces are added to the puzzle of Christine’s past the mystery deepens.

Every night Christine goes to sleep and forgets everything that has happened to her since the age of 27. As she is now 40, this transforms the mere act of regaining consciousness into a daily trauma. The movie begins with her waking up next to a strange man, running to the bathroom and being confronted by an unfamiliar reflection. Photos taped to the mirror chart highlights from the years she has lost.

The man in the bedroom (Colin Firth) tells Christine that his name is Ben, and that he is her husband of over a decade. We will watch Christine constantly struggling to recover fragments of memory as she tries to piece her life back together. Ben tells her they were very much in love, but she encounters him every morning as a stranger. She relies on Ben to provide information about her lost life, but can she trust him?

Unknown to her husband she has been meeting with a neurologist, Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), on a regular basis. Although she forgets these meetings every night, Dr. Nasch rings and fills in the blanks. He has encouraged her to keep a video diary on a camera she keeps hidden in the wardrobe. When Christine watches her own testimony she begins to realise Ben has been lying to her about important, fundamental things.

A reunion with an old friend, Claire (Anne-Marie Duff), confirms the discrepancies between Ben’s stories and the truth. For instance, it seems she had a child who is no longer in the picture. Her amnesia was not caused by an accident, but by a brutal assault. Beyond this point I’d better not venture otherwise the plot will be blown.

This is the sort of story that Alfred Hitchcock could have made into a masterly feature. Joffé, however, is no Hitchcock. Before I Go to Sleep is the work of a tradesman, not an artist. It’s a competent mystery but too predictable and one-dimensional. It would be pointless to complain that the characters are more carefully delineated in the novel. A director must isolate the qualities that make a story succesful and translate this into the distinctive language of cinema.

In Watson’s novel there is an accretion of uncertainties as Christine discovers herself by degrees. We can never be quite sure whether something is real or simply a figment of her imagination. Her personal paranoia produces an echo in the reader’s mind that is maintained until the final pages. Joffé gives the game away too quickly, killing the suspense as the movie rushes towards a conclusion.

It’s a useful idea to substitute a camera for the written diary that Christine keeps in the book, as the sheer amount of high-speed reading and writing she gets through is scarcely plausible. Most of the other changes tend to dilute our engagement with characters who never really come to life.

Colin Firth is cast against type as the impassive Ben. The same might be said of the swarthy Mark Strong, who is more likely to be found playing a villain than a doctor. The key performance is that of Nicole Kidman. The film begins with an intense close-up of her eyball, and she never stops staring at us in a way that denotes alarm, anxiety and confusion. This is not a broad spectrum of emotions and it feels unconvincing. Although she has played a lot of fearful, vulnerable roles in which she must find an inner strength, Kidman may be at her best when she takes on a more brazen persona, as she did in The Paperboy (2012).

David Fincher is reputed to work his actors relentlessly, but he draws first-class performances from Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl. Joffé takes a more perfunctory approach and the difference is palpable. In Before I Go to Sleep the cast are going through the motions rather than digging deep, and the script is too superficial to encourage any greater efforts. This would-be thriller may not send you to sleep, but neither will you be balancing on the edge of your seat.

Before I Go to Sleep
Directed by Rowan Joffé
Written by Rowan Joffé, after a novel by S.J.Watson
Starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Ann-Marie Duff
UK/France/Sweden, rated MA 15+, 92 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 18th October, 2014.