Before I Go to Sleep movie review: memento worry

Before I Go to Sleep red light

When it finally collapses under the weight of its own preposterousness, this would-be elegant thriller becomes a cheap retrograde melodrama.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

And here I was all excited about a stylish and elegant thriller with a woman at its center, with a vaguely science-fictional conceit that works as a potent metaphor for some women’s unpleasant romantic experience. Except that was only the first half of the movie. And then Before I Go to Sleep had to throw that all away.

Ten years ago, 40ish Christine (Nicole Kidman: Grace of Monaco, The Railway Man) had an accident that left her with a weird form of amnesia: she can only remember stuff that happened today. Every morning when she wakes up, her memory has reverted to a point in her 20s. Every morning, she has to relearn that the strange man in her bed is actually her husband of 14 years, Ben (Colin Firth: Devil’s Knot, The Railway Man). She can’t hold a job, of course, so she just stays home while he goes to work, as a teacher at a school near their suburban London home. All of her friends have abandoned her, Ben explains, which is why she would be all alone if not for his faithful devotion. But can she trust him? It only takes us witnessing a few of her days to start to wonder about him. He could be lying about anything or everything… or are his apparent obfuscations from day to day simply a way for him to cope with a horrible situation as best he can? I mean, how do you have a relationship with someone who cannot remember you? How do you bear reliving the terrible trauma of someone you love over and over again, every single day? Some days, Ben says at one point, he just needs a day off, which seems perfectly reasonable.

Director Rowan Joffe (Brighton Rock, The American) ensures that Christine’s life is a pattern of extreme creepiness, and it’s instantly a disturbing analogy for the isolation and dependence that an abusive relationship can entail for women. (The first morning we meet Christine, she has a bruise on her face. Did Ben hit her? He could do anything to her, and she’d forget it by the next morning… which isn’t all that different from how some abused women justify and excuse men’s violence toward them as a measure of emotional defense.) Of course, the suspense comes in how we don’t know if we can trust Ben, either, but we want to: Firth is so very poignant as a man suffering in a way we can only just begin to imagine. Maybe, instead, we — and Christine — shouldn’t trust Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong: Zero Dark Thirty, John Carter), a researcher studying the brain who says he can help her… but who warns her not to tell Ben that she is secretly meeting with the scientist during the day. What’s up with that, anyway?

What’s actually up with all of it ends up in a place where the narrative completely falls apart, and the flimsy justifications for it collapse under the weight of preposterousness. Christine morphs in an instant from a survivor to a victim, in the same instant that the film morphs from that elegant thriller to a cheap Lifetime melodrama, as if The Movies themselves hadn’t formed a new memory since the 1980s. Christine ultimately feels like a man’s idea — and an old-fashioned one, at that — of an “empowered woman,” featuring an especially offensive notion of just what it will take to get Christine out of the strange place she is in. (The novel this is based on was written by a man, S.J. Watson, and Joffe is a dude Rowan.)

If only I could forget the second half of the movie, and remember only how it began…

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