While S.J. Watson’s best selling novel Before I go to Sleep was set in Crouch End, it’s said that the director Rowan Joffe thought it wasn’t a cinematic enough location for the film version. This surely must have been before ArtHouse came on the scene.
Instead the film is set in an anonymous suburb where Christine Lucas, played by Nicole Kidman, is a 47-year-old housewife diagnosed with amnesia. The result of a traumatic event thirteen years ago, it means her brain can only store memories for one day and every night they are wiped out. By the following morning she has forgotten who she is, and every morning the man in her bed has to remind her, ‘I’m Ben, I’m your husband’. The fact that her supportive and understanding husband is played by Colin Firth is reassuring, but seeing the bruise on her face the first morning we meet her starts us doubting. Did Ben hit her? Can she trust the man who claims to be her doctor (Mark Strong) and who has recommended she keep a video diary to hold on to her memories? Is Claire a friend or an enemy? Everyone is under suspicion and we are as disoriented as Christine as she tries to discover the truth.
It’s a clever plot, and if you haven’t read the book the dropping of clues and the false trails hold your attention. The way the film plays with memory and identity and universal fears about whether we really know those around us is also unsettling. It’s a nightmarish scenario of a claustrophobic and repetitive life, reinforced by the greyness of the cinematography. It also raises the disturbing thought that Christine could be an eternal victim of deception, treachery and violence – anyone could do anything to her, and she’d forget it by the next morning. It’s taking the idea of woman as defenceless victim to new extremes and you can’t help but be troubled by it.
Kidman’s accomplished at playing fragile, vulnerable victims, and she’s not given much more than that to work with. Firth, on the other hand, is in new territory and is particularly good in a film that plays with his acting reputation as the gentleman and good guy. Crouchender Anne Marie Duff impresses in a relatively small part as Claire, a waste of her brilliant talents.
The ending is more melodrama than psycho thriller, but for most of the film it’s the twists and unexpected turns that hook you in.