Apparently “Before I Go to Sleep,” a disastrous amnesia thriller starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, was based on an internationally best-selling novel. It has been translated into 40 languages and racked up blockbuster numbers in France, Canada, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, and the United States. (And this was writer S.J. Watson‘s debut novel.) Released in 2011, it was one of those word-of-mouth smashes that never quite captured the zeitgeist the way a crossover phenomenon like “Gone Girl” or “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” did, yet still permeated the culture to a noticeable degree. After seeing the adaptation (and, assuming that said adaptation was fairly faithful), the question arises: How? And also: Why? The story is so poorly-plotted, nonsensical, and misogynist that it’s hard to imagine one person liking this material, much less millions of literate book lovers.
“Before I Go to Sleep” starts off promisingly enough. Kidman plays a woman named Christine Lucas who wakes up in bed next to Firth, unsure of who or where she is. Firth explains that he is Ben, her loving husband, and that a traumatic head injury has left her with a condition where, every time she goes to sleep, she wakes up with the past 20 years of her life erased. He dotes on her, explaining what food she’s allergic to, and assuring her that he’ll be home from work soon. As soon as he leaves, though, she receives a call from her psychologist, a man named Nasch (Mark Strong), who has been working with her to retrieve memories. She has been making a secret video diary in an attempt to sustain some memories on a day-to-day basis, squirreled away in the back of her closet where Ben will never find it. And that supposed accident that left her with this condition? It was actually a violent attack and the police never found the perpetrator…
As far as set-up goes, “Before I Go to Sleep” is equipped with a genuine humdinger. The filmmakers (led by writer/director Rowan Joffe and producer Ridley Scott) understand what a powerful device amnesia is, especially for a thriller. It’s been used countless times and for good reason. There’s something deceptive and alluring about the pliability of memory, about the way that events can shift and mutate when viewed through the prism of remembrance. Memory is such an intrinsically human device, something that confirms what we already know or causes new questions to arise just as quickly, that it makes for a terrific fulcrum to design a thriller around. (Everything from “Rashomon” to “Memento” has realized this and utilized aspects of memory beautifully.) Unfortunately, “Before I Go to Sleep” (a title that makes the movie sound like a picture book you read to small children before they go to bed), beyond those initial few moments of intrigue, falls flat and quickly turns into a monotonous, repetitive bore.
Part of the problem is that the thriller mechanics are so rote and tired. Wait, two characters have the same name? And they’re concealing who they actually are? You don’t say. While “Before I Go to Sleep” tries to pass itself off as a stylish suspense piece, it more closely resembles a soapy melodrama, the kind of thing that they used to clog daytime television with, full of the same halfhearted reveals and cheap, empty thrills. Joffe tries to pull off a heightened level of visual stylization (watch the cherry-red drop of blood as it descends and finally splashes in slow motion), but it comes off as cheap and phony. Watching the film, you question Joffe’s technical ability and storytelling skill, and wonder, Ridley Scott hired this guy to adapt a twisty international bestseller?
It doesn’t help that both Kidman and Firth, who previously starred together in this year’s equally abysmal “The Railway Man,” feel so uncommitted. Kidman, the dynamism drained of her face and her hair dyed the color of trampled straw, looks dazed, bewildered, and uninterested. Part of this is the character, and part of this is undoubtedly the actress knowing that, if she tried just a little bit harder, she could be securing roles that didn’t cast her in such a vacuous, victimized position. Firth, too, seems to be phoning it in, his effete Britishness pushed to almost comical levels. He doesn’t speak his dialogue as much as he mumbles it. The words clumsily tumble out of his mouth like gumballs he’s stuffed in his cheeks. Only Mark Strong, a chronically under-utilized character actor best known for his collaborations with Guy Ritchie, comes across as actually giving a shit. His doctor character is thoughtful and sincere, with just the right amount of shaded malevolence. Unlike the rest of the blatantly obvious dead ends and red herrings crammed into “Before I Go to Sleep’s” mercifully brief 93-minute running time, Strong’s character allows for genuine ambiguity.
The most damnable thing about “Before I Go to Sleep” is its view of Kidman’s character. Now we might be dipping into spoiler territory, so if you want to skip this paragraph and just look at the grade, feel free. Those who are sticking around (and, really, bless you) just know this: Kidman’s character is constantly abused, tortured, and harassed, both physically and psychologically. She never fights back and rarely even protests. And towards the end of the movie, you understand why, when it’s revealed that all of these horrible acts are visited upon Kidman because she cheated on her husband. So, you know, she deserved the horrible attack that left her with a permanent brain injury. In most movies about amnesia, the amnesiac is the victim and forced to reconfigure what was left of his or her life. In “Before I Go to Sleep,” the victim was really asking for it. [F]