Nicole Kidman wakes up from a nightmare and finds herself in bed with a man she doesn’t recognize. In the bathroom, there are photos of herself and this man, taken over the course of years – vacations, wedding pictures. She looks at them vacantly, and when she walks out of the bathroom, the man (Colin Firth) is sitting on the edge of the bed with an explanation: He is her husband, and she has amnesia.
That is, she has the worst case of amnesia ever. A victim of a bad accident some 10 years before, she wakes up every morning thinking she is in her early 20s, when in fact she is 40. Every day, she accumulates information about herself, learns her story and goes about her life. And every morning she wakes up a blank canvas, with no memory of the day before.
Based on the novel by S.J. Watson, the movie depicts different types of amnesia which actually do es exist, but if they didn’t the movies would have had to invent them. it. Gradually, Before I Go to Sleep emerges as a mystery – one with a slow burn leading to a big payoff. But what keeps the movie going, beyond questions of what is true and what is false – are the issues raised by the illness itself. What is a person without a past? What is the value of an experience if it can’t be remembered?
Nicole Kidman plays a person dazed by a constant, ongoing now. A brain injury has forced her to do that thing we’re always told we’re supposed to be doing: She is living completely in the present, and it’s making her scared and miserable.
Then the phone rings. It’s a brain specialist (Mark Strong), introducing himself for the hundredth time, who is working on her case pro bono. He tells her things about her past that contradict her husband’s account. One of the men is lying. That doesn’t necessarily mean that one of them is sinister, but it does make you wonder.
Before I Go to Sleep is smartly constructed to keep an audience guessing at every moment. First we trust the husband, then the therapist, and back and forth at least two or three times. The husband is a little weird and withdrawn, but he’s played by Colin Firth, and with him that’s usually considered a good thing. Besides, anyone might become weird having to reintroduce himself to his panic-stricken wife every morning. Anyone might become stern and unemotional, repressed and slightly scowling – again, just like Colin Firth.
As for the therapist, he seems reasonable, but he’s played by Mark Strong, who is usually a villain, and his interest in his patient seems more than professional. He is clearly attracted to her, but is that so strange? Is that necessarily a bad thing?
These are the questions we ask ourselves, which are also the questions the woman is asking herself, and this cements a bond between the character and the audience. She is desperate to decide these matters, so she can attach a meaning to her life, which she has to do before she goes to sleep. The audience, meanwhile, is a little more patient than that. We just want her to get it right.
Considering the cast, the strong performances should come as no surprise. Looking back, every gesture makes sense and is consistent with the truth as revealed. Kidman, in particular, takes honors for her smart, unshowy work, conveying desperation with her eyes and terror in the way she refuses to trust anyone with her real emotion.
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong.
Writer-director: Rowan Joffe. Based on the novel by S.J. Watson.
A Clarius Entertertainment release. Running time: 92 minutes. Vulgar language, brutal violence. Playing at: area theaters.