‘Before I Go To Sleep’ Review: Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth in Satisfying Amnesia Thriller

Not much new to be found here, but this brisk drama features a top-drawer cast, including Mark Strong as a potentially nefarious doctor

“Before I Go To Sleep” begins with Nicole Kidman‘s Christine waking up in a man’s arms with no small amount of concern on her face. Confused, perhaps embarrassed, she silently gathers her clothes and makes for the bathroom. But as she sees, on the tile wall, a selection of photos of her and the man in her bed taped up with name cards, we realize she’s not confused and embarrassed because she can’t remember the name of the man she’s woken up with; she’s confused and scared because she can’t remember her own name.

Moody and frosted with early-morning light, the opening scenes of “Before I Go To Sleep,” an adequate thriller with flashes of excellence in it from director Rowan Joffé (“Brighton Rock”), set the tone and pace of the film. Christine leaves the bathroom, where her husband Ben (Colin Firth) patiently explains that they’ve been married for years and that she has a condition where sleeping erases her memory. He is, of course, not telling her the whole story.

See video: Nicole Kidman Freaks After Waking Up With Colin Firth in ‘Before I Go to Sleep’ Trailer (Video)

Amnesia has driven plots throughout a broad spread of genres, from Nolan’s thriller “Memento” to the Sandler comedy “50 First Dates,” films like “Clean Slate,” and short stories like John Varley’s “Just Another Perfect Day.”  The biggest difference between “Memento” and “Sleep” is, however, that Christine isn’t pursuing her own past so much as she’s having it thrust upon her.

Very early on, the plot, naturally, thickens. Ben shows her a list of potential activities on a dry-erase board in the kitchen that also notes her allergies — “You like to keep busy,” he notes, with a mix of sadness and resignation and leaves for work. Christine then gets a call from the calm, measured Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), who introduces himself and tells her that she can find a camera in the back of her wardrobe like a message in a bottle she’s left for herself. Dr. Nasch is helping Christine — but without Ben’s knowledge.

before-i-go-to-sleep-BIGTS_04894_rgbAs required in a thriller like this, Dr. Nasch seems kind and caring but he’s also curiously cool and detached. (Strong, so often pressed into villainous service, is excellent here.) Firth’s frustrated and busy Ben has clearly gone to great lengths to build a sheltered new life for Christine, but he can’t keep her safe from the world or from the past.

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While Strong gives the best performance here, both Kidman and Firth invest their parts with strong acting and more than a few surprises. Kidman, especially, gets to show some of the earthy strength demonstrated in her best roles, as well as the vulnerability required to make Christine’s journey engaging. The casting offers great help to “Before I Go To Sleep,” even if it does seem a step removed from the budgets and scale of some of Firth and Kidman’s other less modest work.

Joffé has a nicely tuned eye, and the careful look of the film (shot by Ben Davis of “A Long Way Down” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”) may be its best attribute; all the action unfolds under slate-grey British skies or in coolly off-white rooms, with only a few touches of richer browns and vulgar reds when Christine flashes back to the night of the assault that took her memory. Based on S.J. Watson’s novel, Joffé’s screenplay hits all the right notes as Christine’s old life re-emerges bit by bit out of other people’s conversations and carefully-hidden photos.

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“Before I Go To Sleep” also boasts a superb thriller score from Ed Shearmur, one where loud cymbal crashes mix with creaks in a quiet house, with slashing violins to go with the slashing violence. And the film’s ratio of build-up to finale is also nicely modulated, with Christine’s voyage of self-discovery slowly sailing into uncharted waters before it drops, fast and hard, off the edge of the world she knows.

Perfectly fine as a bit of brisk British diversion in the theater — or, more likely, as a quiet night in with a cup of tea and some classy scares once the film finds a life on video — “Before I Go To Sleep”‘s combination of talents on both sides of the camera means that while it may not rocket you to the edge of your seat as quickly and cruelly as the recent “Gone Girl,” it’s hardly a snooze.