Movie News & Reviews

'Before I Go to Sleep': Amnesia and deception prove to be a cruel combination

Nicole Kidman wakes up from a nightmare and finds herself in bed with a man she doesn't recognize. In the bathroom, there are photos of herself and this man, taken over the course of years — vacations, wedding pictures. She looks at them vacantly, and when she walks out of the bathroom, the man (Colin Firth) is sitting on the edge of the bed with an explanation: He is her husband, and she has amnesia.

It's the worst case of amnesia ever. A victim of a bad accident 10 years before, she wakes up every morning thinking she is in her early 20s, when in fact she is 40. Every day, she accumulates information about herself, learns her story and goes about her life. And every morning she wakes up a blank canvas, with no memory of the day before.

Based on the novel by S.J. Watson, the movie depicts various types of amnesia that do exist. Gradually, Before I Go to Sleep emerges as a mystery — with a slow burn leading to a big payoff. But what keeps the movie going are the issues raised by the illness itself. What is a person without a past? What is the value of an experience if it can't be remembered?

A brain injury has forced her to do that thing we're always told we're supposed to be doing: She is living completely in the present, and it's making her scared and miserable.

Then the phone rings. It's a brain specialist (Mark Strong), introducing himself for the hundredth time, who is working on her case pro bono. He tells her things about her past that contradict her husband's account. One of the men is lying.

Before I Go to Sleep is smartly constructed to keep the audience guessing. First, we trust the husband, then the therapist, and back and forth at least two or three times. The husband is a little weird and withdrawn, but he's played by Colin Firth, and with him that's usually considered a good thing.

The therapist he seems reasonable, but Mark Strong is usually a villain. He is clearly attracted to her, but is that so strange? Is that necessarily a bad thing?

These are the questions we ask ourselves, which are also the questions the woman is asking herself, and this cements a bond between the character and the audience.

Looking back, every gesture makes sense and is consistent with the truth as revealed. Kidman, in particular, takes honors for her smart, unshowy work, conveying desperation with her eyes and terror in the way she refuses to trust anyone with her real emotion.