The best way to describe Before I Go To Sleep is that it’s a very well-executed Lifetime TV movie. It’s competently written and directed (though the grainy, super-saturated look of the flashbacks is worthy of the scholckiest made-for-television thrillers) and the acting is all quite good. But it also deals with the classic, specific paranoias of suburban domesticity: the fundamental unknowability of one’s spouse, the possibility of social seclusion, the loss of greater life purpose, fear for one’s children, and the ever-creeping threat of sexual temptation and infidelity. It’s a thriller built by dancing along the edge of the particular abyss that middle-to-upper class suburban stay-at-home wives and mothers spend a good deal of their time trying not to stare into. The plot conceit – a middle-aged house wife suffering from short-term amnesia, where her memory of everything after her 20s gets wiped clean every time she sleeps – is largely just the mechanism for getting at those underlying ideas.
When we first meet Christine (Nicole Kidman), it’s just after she’s awakened from another night and another memory reset. Director Rowan Joffe’s camera pans out from an extreme close-up of her panic-stricken eye. Christine’s naked in a strange room, in a strange bed and with a strange man (Colin Firth). She makes her way into the restroom, where a collage of photos on the wall makes it clear the man is her husband, Ben, and they’ve shared an entire marriage and life she does’t remember. Sticky notes reading “Your Husband,” “Your Wedding,” etc, pound the point home.
Over the course of the morning, Ben explains the situation: they’ve been married over a decade; she had an accident several years ago that involved head trauma, which caused her amnesia; she stays home every day while Ben goes to work; a dry erase board lists food and supplies in the house, Christine’s allergies, and her various hobbies and pursuits.
After Ben leaves for his job, matters get stranger. She gets a call from a Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), a neuropsychologist Christine has apparently been working with for several weeks without Ben’s knowledge. Every morning after Ben is gone, Nasch calls to update Christine, and direct her to a digital camera she keeps hidden in a drawer. She uses it to record her thoughts, feelings, and whatever breakthroughs she and Nasch achieve. Secrets are quickly unearthed: it wasn’t an accident that took Christine’s memory, it was an attack; Ben is hiding the fact that they had a child at one point; Christine used to have a close friend named Claire (Anne-Marie Duff) who is now nowhere to be found. Memories of the attack start coming back in bits and pieces, but her mind is not entirely trustworthy: sometimes Christine sees one face on her attacker, sometimes another.
Needless to say, things are not as they seem.
Joffe’s camera work isn’t amazing, but it is modestly creative and gets the job done. He also wrote the script from a novel by S.J. Watson, and is smart enough to observe the emotional toll this constant mental resetting has not just on Christine, but on her husband and loved ones as well. Is Ben hiding the truth about their child and Christine’s assault out of some ulterior motive, or is he simply emotionally exhausted by having to rehash the past every morning? There’s a moment when Ben is unnervingly aggressive with Christine sexually – there are, after all, effectively strangers – but at the same time, after going through this process over and over again, can you entirely blame him? Before I Go To Sleep engages our empathy that way, and switchbacks several times on the question of whether Ben is trustworthy. Firth, ever the consummate performer, inhabits the role ably.
Strong, meanwhile, doesn’t have much to do. Of course Nasch has feelings for Christine – like I said, it’s a Lifetime TV movie – so Strong is stuck playing the decent guy trying to ride the line between the professional and the personal, and he delivers what’s needed.
Kidman is probably Before I Go To Sleep’s key strength. Waking up every morning thinking you’re in your 20s, only to discover half your life is gone – along with a whole decade of marriage and family – is not something I think anyone could handle as well as Christine does, realistically speaking. I’m 33 myself, so the idea of waking up one morning to find all the youth you thought you had suddenly stripped away has a certain unnerving relevance, and the movie didn’t really dig into that concept the way I wanted it to. At the same time, the fact that Christine does manage to keep her wits about her is part of what earns our respect for the character. The way she effectively outsources her memory to the camera is interesting (though it also creates a poignant vulnerability) and late in the movie, when matters turn violent, Kidman nails Christine’s combination of awkward physicality and resourcefulness. And while all movies are affectations, Kidman, Joffe and their colleagues behind the camera do a respectable job of realistically portraying Christine as a middle-aged woman, often harried and without make-up.
As a thriller, the Before I Go To Sleep is respectable. Some of the shocks are genuine, others are rote, and there’s a relatively compelling sense of dread in the final scenes, as matters finally become clear. I wasn’t bowled over by the film, but I respected the intelligence of the performances and Joffe’s direction. The Lifetime TV genre, even when well-executed, is just not my thing. So your mileage may vary.