It’s hard to tell if Rowan Joffe’s Before I Go to Sleep is hampered or helped by the performances of its three stars, because the movie is so amateurishly written and directed that their participation beggars belief. Nicole Kidman stars as Christine, a frail woman who wakes up every morning to be told by her husband, Ben (Colin Firth), that she’s suffering from amnesia following “an accident.” After Ben goes to work, Christine receives a phone call from a Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), who explains that they’ve been meeting nearly every day, and that she’s been keeping a video diary unbeknownst to her husband. In a series of meetings (true to thriller form, always in a parking garage or a public park), Nasch helps Christine relearn that she was found bludgeoned half to death at a hotel near an airport. And as Christine builds a network of interlocking Post-its and photographs to jog her destroyed memory, flashes of the traumatic event begin to burble to the surface—and her trust in both men withers in proportion.
How Christine manages to relearn her entire life history daily—apparently, before lunchtime!—is one of many elisions of logic within Joffe’s screenplay, which expects viewers to believe Ben when he tells her she’s been like this for 10 years, and yet also feel surprised when he’s caught conspicuously lying. Firth’s signature blend of unctuousness and vulnerability are deployed so carelessly that Ben stinks of fraud the moment he appears, while Strong’s puppy-dog eyes and gravelly elocution come off so sincere that they create an equally viable chance that Nasch will turn out to be the culprit. Halfway into the film, Christine begins to remember that her attacker’s name was Mike; moments later, it’s revealed that Nasch’s first name is also Mike. When she remembers a glimpse of Nasch standing over her with a bloodied lamp, no viewer will recognize this as anything other than a bit of willful misdirection on Joffe’s part, because the whole point of a movie like this is that the definitive twist doesn’t arrive until the bitter end.
Before I Go to Sleep rests on a serviceable-enough turn by Kidman, but fudges its intent from scene one, simultaneously inviting viewers to feel Christine’s pain while also leering at her naked body. That she exists (and, indeed, nearly died) as fodder for men’s lust is an idea neither explored nor questioned; the screenplay is content simply to figure out which man took his lust to its most insane, homicidal ends. Over-explaining and under-conceptualized, the film doesn’t aspire to be about much of anything other than Kidman’s body and its own narrative unreliability, like an extended commercial for a psychodrama that assumes audience involvement is a given. When Christine’s real past is finally revealed, a bland idea of familial normalcy takes center stage—and it’s as generic, cheap, and saccharine and as the hitherto scenes were generic, cheap, and lurid. Joffe’s is a politics of despair, where the only interesting thing a character has going for them is either how much suffering they can inflict or how much they can take.