Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Before I Go to Sleep (2014)

Christine (Nicole Kidman) wakes up every morning remembering nothing that has happened to her since her late 20s. The man she wakes up next to, her husband Ben (Colin Firth), explains - with the help of a useful photo wall in the movies more often used by serial killers - to her that some years ago, she had a bad accident that left her with a very particular kind of amnesia, erasing her memory with every night’s sleep.

However, things aren’t quite as simple as they seem to be. Secretly, Christine has been seeing neurologist Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong) for a few weeks now. Nasch has encouraged her to keep a video diary on a camera she keeps hidden, and reminds her of it with a phone call every morning. The therapy seems to be working too, but the bits and pieces Christine remembers lead to doubts concerning Ben.

Turns out Christine’s “accident” was actually a vicious attack on her. This will turn out not to be the only part of her past Ben edits out when he’s doing his daily info dump with her, but is this an attempt to protect her and survive a very difficult situation for himself, or is something sinister going on? And while we’re at it, what about Nasch? Isn’t he acting ethically rather questionable what with him making googly eyes at Christine and treating her in secret?

In general, I’m not terribly fond of thrillers with amnesia plots. It always seems to be a rather too convenient starting point from which to build a plot from, keeping protagonists and audience guessing without a film having to work for it.

However, if an amnesia film uses its easy starting point as well as Rowan Joffe’s Before I Go to Sleep does, I’m totally okay with it. The trick for such a film to make me happy is to create a narrative where the protagonist’s amnesia is more than just a plot tool, so Christine’s memory loss does have quite a few other functions than just enabling the thriller plot – though it does that too. As much as this is a well done “woman in peril – but from whom?” thriller, it is also a film attempting to think thoroughly about the way memory shapes a woman’s identity, and how memory and identity intersect with love and trust.

In putting the thoughtful bits and the thriller plot together, Joffe turns out to be a rather fine director and writer (he wrote the script based on a novel by S.J. Watson I unfortunately haven’t read) for this sort of thing, playing fair with the audience by keeping them clued in about what is going on as much as Christine is without going through awkward contortions to keep things mysterious. Sure, the way the plot relevant bits of memory return to Christine is a bit artificial (surely, she might remember drinking milkshakes or something else irrelevant to matters at hand from time to time instead of exactly those things that’ll make the film most interesting) but what the film does with these memories fits nicely into its thoughts on matters of trust, truth and love. And the suspenseful moments here are indeed exciting without looking as if the film were working too hard for them – which of course means it is working particularly hard for them.

Add to this expectedly fine performances of not particularly simple roles by Kidman and Firth, and you have an exemplary thriller.

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