Rowan Joffé’s drizzly, workmanlike thriller Before I Go To Sleep turns a ludicrous premise into a fitfully suspenseful, consistently interesting exercise in audience manipulation. Less a cut-rate Gone Girl than a throwback to gothic, mid-1940s women’s noirs like My Name Is Julia Ross, the movie mines common domestic fears—the spouse as stranger, the home as prison—while turning the viewer’s susceptibility to twists into a plot device. It starts as tawdry camp, turns into a canny deconstruction of the same, and then concludes with a saccharine scene that can’t help but come across as a little creepy.
Sporting a slippery, halfway-English accent, Nicole Kidman stars as Christine Lucas, a Berkshire housewife suffering from one of those case-study brain injuries that seem to only occur in convoluted mysteries. She’s unable to remember anything that happened after her early 20s, and every time she falls asleep, all of her new memories are lost—a condition that the movie equates, visually, to the wiping of a memory card. Every morning, she wakes up in house full of yellow Post-its and receives the same spiel from weary-looking Ben (Colin Firth), who makes her breakfast while explaining that he’s her husband, that they’ve been married for 14 years, and that she’s had an accident that prevents her from remembering either of these things. And every weekday morning, right after Ben explains that he’s a chemistry teacher and leaves for work, Christine receives a phone call from Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), who re-introduces himself and instructs her to go to her wardrobe and grab the camera she uses as a secret video diary.
Suffice it to say that Ben is keeping a lot of Christine’s past from her. Before I Go To Sleep spends much of its running time pulling out melodramatic reveals, with each of Christine’s suspicions unearthing new details of a soapy backstory. It’s narrative rope-a-dope; the viewer is plied with twists before the movie—which Joffé adapted from a 2011 novel by S.J. Watson—reveals itself as being both more clever and much more lurid than it’s been letting on. But though Joffé elicits capable performances from a tiny cast (there are only seven speaking parts, three of them bit roles), his style is too bloodless and stodgy; interiors and exteriors look identically overcast, the blue-gray color palette interrupted only by some garishly graded flashbacks and a few scenes set in a parking lot lit jaundice-orange. Flourishes of personality—like a scene of a car racing through a tunnel shot with a lens so wide-angle, it resembles something out of Fallen Angels—are few and far between. A viewer can’t help but wish the film were as florid as its plotting; just imagine what Pedro Almodóvar could have done with the same material.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details not talked about in this review, visit Before I Go Sleep’s spoiler space.