Star power helps awaken formulaic ‘Before I Go to Sleep’
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, October 31, 2014
“Before I Go to Sleep” is the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. Unfussy and somewhat old--fashioned, this red--meat thriller is a dish formed from familiar ingredients ---- Sex! Violence! Amnesia! ---- served with a side of starchy adherence to formula. It probably isn’t good for you, but it ain’t half bad, either.
Based on the best--selling 2011 novel by S.J. Watson about an amnesiac who wakes up each morning having forgotten everything that happened in the past 15 years or so ---- her marriage, the trauma that caused her condition, and other life details, large and small ---- the thriller centers on a character who is, essentially, a goldfish. Incapable of retaining knowledge about the outside world, except as it is fed to her, Christine (Nicole Kidman) wakes up in bed every morning next to her husband, Ben (Colin Firth), who goes through the rote recitation of who he is and what she’s doing there. Their house, which Christine seems to rarely leave, is covered with sticky notes.
As the film gets underway, Christine has recently begun therapy with a new psychiatrist, Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), who has suggested that she start keeping a video diary. Nasch calls her each morning, reminding her to pull out the camera and review ---- and reinforce ---- the previous days’ entries, which eventually trigger additional memories, leading to questions for Ben that produce contradictory, even somewhat evasive answers. Suddenly, it seems that the story she hears every day may not be entirely factual.
But this demands an acceptance of the implausible, if not the downright impossible.
I’m not talking about Christine’s medical condition. A form of anterograde amnesia that allows the formation of new memories, only to wipe the slate clean each night, is technically speaking an STD, or storytelling device. Along with other forms of convenient memory loss, the gimmick is endemic in Hollywood (see “50 First Dates”), and there is no known cure. Just go with it.
No, I’m talking about the assumption that Christine has no life, other than what Ben spoon--feeds her. The entire movie and its twist ending are premised on the idea that the heroine does nothing all day: no shopping trips, no taking the car in for a tune--up that might lead her ---- or, more importantly, the people she encounters ---- to have formed a few questions before now.
To its credit, the script addresses this problem when Christine asks Ben what she does with her time, but his noncommittal answer doesn’t really solve the issue. By the time the lurid truth of Christine’s circumstances emerges ---- a back story involving infidelity, battering and significant characters who have gone missing from Christine’s life without raising any eyebrows from the authorities ---- the hole in the plot is gaping.
That said, the film is not without its pleasures. Kidman and Firth lend the pulpy material a certain prestige, even if Strong comes across as simply another plot device (and a perplexing one at that). Presented as too ethical to have an affair with his patient, for whom he’s beginning to have feelings, Nasch also encourages Christine to hide her video journal from her husband, for reasons that are glaringly unprofessional. Without that critical plot turn, though, there would be no movie.
All of this is competently chor--
eographed by writer--director Rowan Joffe, who tells the story with a brisk efficiency. Unlike Christine, I found that I could forgive “Sleep’s” sins, but I couldn’t forget them.