I’m not the biggest fan of Christopher Nolan’s mind-boggler MEMENTO, but at least it was packed full of interesting ideas. The opening of BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP is smothered by watery visuals and sound effects, then we hear a heartbeat, a ticking clock, an eye opens in extreme close-up. This was never going to be a nuanced one.
Christine (Nicole Kidman) lives a life in a day, every day. Due to an incident she can’t remember, she loses every memory of what has happened and who she is every time she sleeps. She wakes up to a man, Ben (Colin Firth) calling himself her husband, and another man, Dr Nash (Mark Strong) calling himself her psychiatrist. As Christine struggles to put together the pieces of her life before she loses everything again, it becomes increasingly clear that nothing is as it seems.
The film might as well have been retitled Unreliable Narrator: The Movie. From the off we’re looking for holes in Ben’s story, trying to figure him out. Perhaps that should be unreliable narrators, as Dr Nash doesn’t hold up to all that much scrutiny either, and you find yourself asking all the right questions of Ben and Nash as they spin their tales, which Christine, annoyingly, doesn’t.
The film doesn’t seem to realise that Christine has only lost her memory, she’s not an idiot. In (apparently) his first conversation with her, Dr Nash explains to Christine in excruciating detail how to switch on and use a digital camera. It’s a camera, not a bomb, give the woman some credit!
There’s some rather worrying gender politics in evidence. A vulnerable woman believes and does everything that two men tell her almost without question. Surely you’d be more frightened and guarded if you’d just woken up naked next to a likewise naked man with no memory? But no, Kidman plays a character written as an emotional zombie who isn’t all that bothered about being dominated by a pair of men who, for all we know, she has only just met. The Husband and the Doctor, both patriarchal constructs to be obeyed. It’s only when Ben and Dr Nash’s stories don’t seem to match that Christine starts to get suspicious.
It’s pretty obvious from the beginning that one of Christine’s unreliable narrators is responsible for her condition. The question is, who? The other question is, should we be encouraged to care more about finding the answer?
It’s cute that the symbol for preserving memories used in Memento is recycled here – the humble post-it note. Christine doesn’t quite go to the same extremes Guy Pearce’s amnesiac did to recall key information, however, she just records her thoughts towards the end of the day on her camera and is reminded by phone the next day to watch it back.
We have to ask if Christine would really consent to sex with a man she’s only known (in her terms) for 24 hours, just because he says he’s her husband? Their first scene of intimacy triggers that old memory loss movie standby – a similar situation triggering a vivid flashback to a previously foggy event. This is rarely a stylistic choice made by a thoughtful filmmaker, and smacks a bit of, “I’ve seen other people do this, so I’ll just repeat the technique”. I’m not even sure an amnesiac’s brain works this way, it’s just a very convenient plot device.
Kidman does all she can with a thankless role, communicating a lot through her eyes (which the camera spends a lot of time on), but Firth veers from creepy to looking bored scene-to-scene and Strong was clearly cast solely for having a chocolatey, authoritative voice.
The film had an interesting effect on me in that I nearly dozed off and forgot what happened in the previous scene on several occasions. In a sense, I was Christine in those moments, all because the film wasn’t all that engaging.
Aside from all this (and it’s a lot to put aside) the film isn’t particularly badly made on a purely technical level. It’s stylistically clean, if uninteresting. The third act nearly works as a mediocre slasher, and the final scene is admittedly quite moving. But there’s just too much clumsy or unpleasant stuff acting upon Before I Go to Sleep as a whole to enjoy the very few things it gets right. SSP