Two stars. Rated R, for violence, pointless profanity and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang
This modest thriller opens with an intriguing first act, loses momentum in the second, slides into stupidsville during the climax, and concludes with a sappy epilogue that drew well-deserved snickers of disgust from Wednesday evening’s preview audience.
Truly, a lamentable waste of an A-list cast.
UK author S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep was an auspicious debut novel in the spring of 2011, climbing bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic, earning translations in more than 40 countries, and galloping home with two significant crime writers’ awards. I can only assume that the premise and execution worked far better on the printed page than here, via director Rowan Joffe’s screenplay ... although I note that even some of Watson’s complimentary critics complained about his contrived denouement.
Actually, contrived isn’t strong enough. As executed by Joffe — a clumsy scripter thus far known for leaden adaptations of thrillers by Martin Booth (The American) and Graham Greene (Brighton Rock) — this manipulative psychological mystery completely falls apart during post-mortem analysis. It utterly fails the “driving home” test, as unhappy patrons pick apart details and plot element which, in the final analysis, don’t make sense and simply couldn’t happen in the real world.
Which is a shame, because — as a director — Joffe establishes a reasonably tense and unsettling atmosphere as the story begins.
Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) wakes each morning frightened and confused, in a bed, bedroom and house that are wholly unfamiliar, having slept next to a man who appears a total stranger. That would be Ben (Colin Firth), who gently, patiently explains that he’s her husband, and that they’ve been married for years. She doesn’t remember any of this, he continues — quiet despair clouding his eyes, as we realize that he has repeated this well-worn script hundreds (thousands?) of times — because she suffers from psychogenic amnesia, the result of a traumatic traffic accident.
Christine begins each day believing that she’s still a single woman in her 20s, when, in fact, she’s a 40-year-old wife. She can absorb and process information each day — assisted by displays of photos and messages that Ben has posted throughout their house — but she forgets all the “new” information each time she sleeps. And then, the following morning, the whole heartbreaking ritual takes place again.
Kidman is persuasively disoriented, her wary eyes flickering between this man she doesn’t recognize, to the rooms of a strange home that are filled with photographic reminders of years spent with him: wedding and vacation pictures, casual shots of her wearing clothes that hang in the closets ... everything that indicates a long and deliriously happy life at Ben’s side.
Ben heads for work each weekday morning — he teaches at a nearby school — and leaves Christine to re-discover her life, become re-acquainted with her surroundings. By dinnertime each evening, she has come to accept and appreciate how ghastly this is for her: and also for sad, faithful Ben, who clearly hopes that, the following morning, she’ll know who she is without being prompted.
But no; the pattern has remained fixed for years.
Except ... not entirely. We’re dropped into this melancholy ritual shortly after things have changed. After Ben departs for work on an otherwise average morning, Christine gets a phone all from a man who identifies himself as Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), a neuropsychologist who explains that he has been helping her, each day, without Ben’s knowledge. Still on the phone, he reminds her where she hid the digital camera he gave her, a few weeks ago, on which she has recorded daily messages to herself.
She plays the messages saved thus far, refreshing her memory of the previous meetings with Dr. Nasch, then joins him for another session.
Their efforts are bearing fruit: Examining particular photographs, and visiting places that should mean something to her, are prompting brief flashes of something in her mind. They prompt a rising sense of dread, as Christine becomes convinced that she’s on the verge of remembering things that somebody doesn’t want her to recall.
And, at about this point, our willingness to play along evaporates.
Years? Seriously? Where are all the people — neighbors, friends, associates — who should be circling this poor woman’s orbit? Granted, Ben and Christine live in an isolated, woodsy home in suburban Surrey — moved from the book’s terraced Victorian in London’s Crouch End — but surely a curious woman would have explored, come across other people, established a presence.
That said, would Ben really leave such a vulnerable wife alone each day, knowing full well that if she wandered off and got lost for even a single night, she’d waken the following day without any way of knowing who she was?
As for Nasch, would a reputable doctor treat such an unusual case while cautioning his patient to conceal these efforts from her husband? Why the need for such secrecy? What’s he hiding?
All too quickly, these mounting contrivances remove any possibility that Christine’s saga is taking place in our real world; she begins to resemble the little boy trapped by a domineering mother in their secluded mansion, in the 1947 Ray Bradbury short story “Jack in the Box.” Point being, the premise turns into sheer fantasy, which destroys our ability — or willingness — to care a jot about what happens next.
Those are problems from Christine’s point of view, within the context of her saga. From our point of view, as patrons witnessing these events, Joffe’s film suffers badly from claustrophobia and poor use of “movie logic.” This is essentially a three-hander, and when it becomes obvious that somebody did something very, very bad to our heroine, we have only two (count ’em) suspects: Firth’s Ben, and Strong’s Nasch.
A fourth character eventually wanders into the picture, bringing partial clarity and additional obfuscation, but by then we’ve already lost interest. And the subsequent answers merely prompt additional questions.
Ultimately, all these characters behave the way they do, not because it makes any sense in terms of actual human emotions and responses, but because that’s what Joffe’s maladroit script demands. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
Matters aren’t helped by a sense of déjà vu, since this premise fueled the 2004 Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore comedy, 50 First Dates ... which was far more satisfying.
Kidman is well versed with uneasy, anxious intensity, having led us down a much more satisfying garden path in 2001’s The Others. She deserves credit for maintaining this story’s unsettling mood far longer than it deserves, her wary eyes and half-open mouth suggesting the quiet terror of a woman who genuinely fears what she’ll find around the next corner of a house whose rooms she cannot remember.
Firth, in turn, is all dismayed expressions and physical misery, his weary, soul-deadened tone reflecting a man who has given his all to this thankless daily task, and wonders how much longer he can continue.
Strong, despite Nasch’s calm and gently sympathetic manner, can’t help looking and sounding sinister ... no doubt because his résumé reflects so many villainous roles. Not the actor’s fault, of course, and perhaps Joffe intended it that way.
Joffe and his crew are a bit more successful behind the scenes, with clever little touches that add to the initially disquieting atmosphere. Christine, by virtue of her condition, meekly relies on Ben to choose her clothes, much the way James Stewart dressed Kim Novak, in Hitchcock’s Vertigo: each woman becoming a vision of her respective man’s mood at the moment.
Production designer Kave Quinn makes Christine and Ben’s home look washed out and gloomy, despite the tasteful furniture and modern appliances. Joffe and cinematographer Ben Davis collaborated to shoot when outdoor weather contrasted a given scene’s atmosphere: Christine’s minor triumphs unfold against ominous, often rainy skies; sunny days are undercut by her darker moments.
I only wish Joffe had similarly fine-tuned his script, even if it meant altering chunks of Watson’s original novel.
Kidman and Firth worked together just last year, in director Jonathan Teplitzky’s far more successful adaptation of Eric Lomax’s memoir, The Railway Man. Check out that drama, should you wish to watch these two stars interact; Before I Go to Sleep is a total waste of time.