To approach a film like Before I Go To Sleep with little knowledge of the narrative, its nifty twists and turns and psychological jolts, isn’t only appropriate but a necessity – just like you would approach any vintage mystery thriller. Overhear a detail and the jigsaw pieces will all soon fall. Read the book and you’ll forever compare the verisimilitude between page and cinematic frame. Know the ending and your entertainment is fucking ruined. Remember back in the 1950’s and 60’s (for any of you fortunate to be alive during Hollywood’s Golden Era) when a new Hitchcock film, particularly Psycho, was marketed with such chilling pragmatism, invoking everyone who has seen it not to divulge how the film ends? Roughly the same can be said about Rowan Joffe’s Before I Go To Sleep, a throwback mystery suspense cut in the mould of the Hitchcock Genre Cinema that – at some levels – intrigues and disconcerts in a primal, old-school kind of way. Sure, millions have read the S. J. Watson’s source tome (you’re a legitimate troglodyte if you haven’t seen it occupying WH Smiths’ shelves for months), but seeing a memory-impaired protagonist onscreen mustering consciousness and common sense despite a damaged brain hits an intrinsic chord in all of us. There’s rarely anything alarming than waking up every morning without any recollection of the past decade or so – let alone the previous 24 hours.
And so enters the intense predicament of Christine Lucas, who suffers a daily disorder worse than you epic hangover – amnesia. Hollywood has mapped out all manners of fugue-ridden plots (Memento, 50 First Dates, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Mulholland Drive, Spellbound), and while Rowan Joffe’s screenplay and direction are questionable at times, his approach is less Nolan and more of a hybrid between Polanski and Hitchcock. Mystery and paranoia seep through the domestic walls and out of Nicole Kidman’s nervous system (literally) as her classic, gorgeous blonde, damsel-in-distress prototype tiptoes on both mental and psychological shards, and piecing the details of her past life that could either help or further damage her present vulnerable state. It’s a role that any blonde leading lady from the Hitchcock canon could have played, anyone between Tippi Hedren, Grace Kelly and Kim Novak, but Kidman proves she’s the present queen of icy, brittle emotions that crack and thaw with such intensity it’s impossible not to feel the confusion, pain and terror her character is going through every single bloody day.
Not all of it works well – Joffe often unsubtly sews in wooden dialogues and red herrings that don’t only feel contrived but also weakens the psycho-thriller build-up. His unremarkable use of flashback is also something that bogs the proceedings down, all grungy, sepia-washed ultraviolence ripped out of the low-rent Hollywood backlot. What he gets right, nonetheless, is in the casting. As such, the film gets to play with the yin-and-yang screen personas of Colin Firth and Mark Strong without reducing their characters to Manichean cardboard types. But this is really Kidman’s show – infinitely frazzled, perplexed and at nerve’s end, she gives an emotionally distraught and draining performance that feels both affecting and effortless at the same time. There aren’t many actors of her calibre who can turn from primped-royal glamourpuss into a dowdy, wretched amnesiac in a space of a year while still displaying the commitment of a seasoned pro. If anything, Before I Go To Sleep is worth watching for Kidman alone.