There have been previous films that featured short-term memory loss as a main convention. Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) is probably the most recent and most notable film to employ this gimmick. Yet, despite the most obvious use for this device, Before I Go to Sleep never capitalizes on it, choosing, instead, to present a much more conventional story. In doing so, however, the film swings toward drama, but never fully develops the foundation for its emotional catharsis amidst the thrill of its main plot.
Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) is a special kind of amnesiac who cannot retain new memories beyond one day due to a horrific car accident in her early 20’s. Now 40, she wakes everyday with no memory of anything that has happened in her life since the collision. Her husband, Ben (Colin Firth), must remind her of their history every morning via a series of photographs and a well-rehearsed speech quickly detailing their relationship. When Ben goes to work, however, Christine receives a call from a Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), who tells her that he’s been working with her to help restore her memory. To prove that, Nasch leads Christine to a camera that he’s asked her to use to record messages to herself. In doing so, Christine creates a kind of external permanent memory, but as her mind becomes less fractured, she discovers that there is more to her life than the people surrounding her are letting on. And the things she can’t remember may end up killing her.
Despite the interesting memory mechanic, it doesn’t take center stage. In fact, it’s largely forgettable since most of the film encompasses Christine’s slowly returning memories. So while she does have to be reminded of her recent identity every morning, there’s no sense of immediate discovery that audiences might be expecting from this kind of setup. While Christine occasionally leaves warnings for herself, they’re presented to audiences in such a way as to spoil the suspense of discovering the warning in real-time because audiences watched Christine record the message the night before.
Most of the tension comes from the people in Christine’s life, but not necessarily because of her memory. These people just behave suspiciously and would be suspect even if Christine had no disabilities. People continually hide aspects of Christine’s life from her. In one instance, when Christine is rationally frightened by someone close to her, that person simply says “I’m sorry” in a creepy manner before silently chasing Christine down, which would make anyone think they were in danger. Obviously, having a damaged memory makes an individual very vulnerable. Unfortunately, Before I Go to Sleep felt the need to manufacture fear in already scary circumstances.
Even though the presentation is a little off, the actors all do an admirable job with their parts, which boils down to excellent casting. Nicole Kidman is as reliable as ever, delivering a fearless and natural performance. And while the script does force her to go through some cliché motions, Kidman keeps the scenes fresh and organic, finding the truth in each moment. Mark Strong is a good choice for Dr. Nasch since Strong has the demeanor of a person whose actions could easily be construed as being cold or professional, helpful or manipulative. Finally, Colin Firth’s squeaky clean, nice guy manner is always fertile ground for a dark side to grow in the shadows. The only complaint is that the film isn’t long enough to really develop why the characters are as committed as they are to Christine. It’s obvious that she is being manipulated in some fashion. The question becomes why someone would be willing to keep up appearances for as long as they do, and no amount of good acting can make up for an unanswered question.
Before I Go to Sleep is based on the novel of the same title written by S. J. Watson, which is probably why the film feels unfocused. The story presented to moviegoers is torn between being a psychological thriller where every motive is suspicious and being a personal drama about a broken woman trying to put her life and family back together again. The thriller is, of course, the more engaging half, but when it’s resolved, audiences have to switch gears abruptly to accept melodrama. This emotional shift works better in a novel because there’s more time to develop those emotions using medium-specific fictive techniques. In a film, a shift like this just feels rushed. So while audiences will ultimately enjoy Before I Go to Sleep, they will do so intellectually, not emotionally.