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Before I Go to Sleep

For a film about reclaiming an identity, Before I Go to Sleep too plainly lacks one of its own.
Before I Go to Sleep

Memories: their absence troubles some, and their presence worries others. This is the waking reality of Ben and Christine Lucas, a married couple plagued by the discrepancy between their recollections. Christine (Nicole Kidman, Grace of Monaco) awakens each morning unaware of her surroundings, her last 13 years, and the man beside her. Ben (Colin Firth, Magic in the Moonlight) works through a daily routine of filling in the gaps in Christine's consciousness, updating the details of her current life, only for it all to be erased with each night's sleep. She learns of things she can't remember; he tells of things he wishes he couldn't. And so the cycle continues, again and again with each rising and setting of the sun.

A phone call helps break the repetition, with Dr Nash (Mark Strong, Zero Dark Thirty) eager to help Christine retain her snippets of her past for more than 24 hours, though cautioning her to keep their work a secret. Accordingly, Before I Go to Sleep plays out not only as a puzzling mystery, but also as a psychological thriller. As it endeavours to piece together the real reasons behind Christine’s condition, it concurrently tries to evoke an air of tension in her furtive attempts to discover and maintain her sense of self, her efforts threatened by her husband and thwarted by the passing of time. 

Adapting S. J. Watson’s novel of the same name, Before I Go to Sleep makes marriage its basis; however its focus on recurrence can’t mask its similarity in idea to many an already-seen amnesiac narrative and frequently sighted story of daily do-overs. What Rowan Joffe’s screen translation lacks, particularly in comparison to the likes of Memento, Groundhog Day and even 50 First Dates, is interest beyond its gimmick. Apparently unconvinced with advancing the tale beyond the obvious, the filmmaker misses few opportunities to remind audiences of his conceit, largely via lengthy shots of photos or symmetrically styled mirrored reflections. The 'he said, she said' relationship troubles, also a familiar theme on film, aren’t enough to bulk up the thin and blatant execution of the whodunit premise, nor is the film helped by its rampant leaps in believability and logic in behaviour, motivation and scant traces of backstory.

Where the feature tries to demonstrate its weight is in its performances, albeit performances devoid of any depth in characterisation. Ostensibly a three-hander, the only other significant presence comes from Anne-Marie Duff (Closed Circuit) as one of Christine’s long-lost friends, adding a much needed dose of brightness and personality. Re-teaming after The Railway Man, Kidman and Firth again play with strained emotions; however it is the former in haunted mode that is afforded the most screen time, though both share the same limited range of emotional expressions. The best pairing comes from Firth and Strong, not in their shared scenes but in their common murkiness, sustaining the possibility that either could be a friend or foe. 

As a writer of 28 Weeks Later and The American turned director with Brighton Rock and now this, Joffe doesn’t lack in ambition or an eye for aesthetics, his latest heavy-handedly convinced of its concept and boasting a cool colour palette and ample visual flourishes. Alas, following a heavily trampled tried-and-tested path in story and uninspired execution can’t be overcome. For a film about reclaiming an identity, Before I Go to Sleep too plainly lacks one of its own.

Rating: 2 stars out of 5

Before I Go to Sleep
Director: Rowan Joffe
UK / France / Sweden, 2014, 92 mins

Release date: October 16
Distributor: StudioCanal
Rated: MA

Sarah Ward

Tuesday 14 October, 2014

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay