Before I Go To Sleep (2014)

Before I Go To SleepChristine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) has anterograde amnesia, meaning that she is unable to form new memories. She can remember everything that happened up until her early twenties, but beyond that nothing more than fragments. Every morning she wakes up in a strange bed, next to a strange man (Colin Firth), only to be told that she is now a married woman of 47, and that he is in actual fact her husband. Once he leaves for work, she is contacted by Nash (Mark Strong), a neuroscientist claiming to be her doctor, who directs her towards a shoe box containing a camera on which she has recorded messages for herself. Using this as a makeshift memory bank, she tries to put together the mystery of her condition, brought on, she is told, by an attempt on her life that has never been solved. The moment she goes to sleep, however, these memories are lost, and she must start over again the next morning.

Storytelling and memory go way back. After all, what is memory if not the most important story of all? The story of you, of your life and achievements, a record of everything you have ever thought, felt or sensed. And what use are stories if you cannot remember them? Amnesia has long troubled philosophers and psychologists alike, but its prominence in popular culture speaks to a much wider fascination than among intellectuals alone. The latest film to explore the subject is Before I Go To Sleep, Rowan Joffé’s adaptation of S. J. Watson’s 2011 novel of the same name. Like many, it does so through the prism of a murder mystery, albeit one where only half of the victim’s life has been lost.

While it is easy enough to sit through a lecture on the self concept or read a scientific paper on Alzheimer’s disease, watching a film on the subject of memory loss is rather more problematic. Like memory, cinema is ultimately an illusion, and if you break that illusion you risk alienating your audience. Viewers expect certain things from their protagonist, important things like progression, development and growth; things that someone with amnesia is simply unable to offer. Over the years cinema has found ways to compensate — Joffé doesn’t show full daily cycles, but hints at them with repetitions of certain incidence and encounters, while Christine employs a video diary to help steer her in the right direction — but few have to keep it up, as unlike real amnesiacs most of those featured in movies have made a near-full recovery within ninety minutes of losing their memory.

Christine isn’t a particularly interesting character, which is a shame because on paper at least she’s fascinating. A 47-year-old woman who wakes up daily in the body of a twenty-something? Just imagine it: the confusion as you awake in the arms of a stranger, in alien environs and a body you only half recognise. You’d want to speak to your mum, your dad, your best friends. You’d want to see a doctor, or call the police. You’d want to weep. The premise does not just lend itself to horror, or tragedy, but to comedy too; the juxtaposition of a young mind in an old body, unable to find clothes you recognise as you pick through items more appropriate for someone twice your age. Rather than begin each day in such a way, however, Christine simply stands in the kitchen — emotionless — allowing a stranger to pull her into a hug and convince her that everything’s going to be alright. It’s unbelievable, and the first act is almost impossible to engage with.

While Joffé may inherit Watson’s irritatingly passive protagonist, however, he also gets the author’s ending — and what an ending it is. After playing something of a long game, with only the occasional double-bluff, the writer-director finally plays his full hand. Your heart sinks, your stomach lurches and your fingers sink into the padding on the armrest. Some may predict the plot twist, others will already know it from the book, but for those who haven’t guessed correctly — and, it must be said, those who have long stopped trying — it will turn your blood cold. Before I Go To Sleep is a better thriller than it is a mystery, and after an hour of relative inactivity the film finally starts to build momentum. There’s never any question of whether Christine will get her memories back before the end of the film, but there is uncertainty with regards to whether she will live long enough to remember them. Given how muted, detached and expressionless the first act was, it’s genuinely amazing that the finale is as emotional and satisfying as it is.

It’s difficult to create a watertight mystery about something as permeable as human memory, and there are very few examples of movies that manage to pull it off successfully. Before I Go To Sleep gets a lot wrong, but Joffé — with the help of Colin Firth, it must be said — manages to turn it around just in time for a truly stunning climax.

3-Stars

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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