In this past month we’ve seen both David Fincher’s Gone Girl and Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure examine the relationships between men and women and the ways in which both parties delicately handle control. In both cases, those films feature male protagonists who think they’re in control as their spouses attempt to turn the screws (in polar-opposite ways) around them in order to confront their failures. While not in the same realm of dramatic scope or just plain old cinematic quality, Rowan Joffe’s Before I Go to Sleep also plays its hand at this concept of a husband believing he is in control of a woman who has stepped out of her society-bound role as masculine-observant to seek her own truth. It’s pulpy, but Joffe – who also adapted the screenplay from S.J. Watson’s novel – does a good job at giving his actors a playground that adheres strongly to genre conventions, but with a bit more mature leeway.
Nicole Kidman stars as Christine, a woman who suffered a head injury and now awakes every morning believing the man next to her is a one-night stand from her 20s. It’s only upon looking in the mirror and seeing the photographs on the bathroom wall that she realises something is amiss. “I’m your husband”, says Ben, played by Colin Firth in a quick return to the screen for The Railway Man pairing. Once he has spelled out the morning routine as he always does, he heads to work, which is when Christine receives a call from Dr Nasch, played by Mark Strong, a neurological specialist who has been secretly helping Christine without Ben’s knowledge. He informs her that she has been keeping a video diary of the clues and information she has been discovering on her quest to find out the truth of what happened to her.
Before I Go to Sleep is small-scale compared to the wildly flamboyant brushstrokes of Gone Girl, sure, but it succeeds in telling a story – one that has daft science behind it, I have no doubt – about a woman who is trying desperately to crawl herself out of the hole built around her by a men. Joffe’s film keenly plays with the casting of names like Firth and Strong as well as the expectation that they would be cast against-type. It’s a figure-eight effect where the shifting sands of the story make our loyalties and our readings of the central mystery ebb and flow. It’s a work of wonderful manipulation in that sense, but the film works more or less because no matter which of the two men (and there is a third whose brief appearances throughout are fleeting, yet pivotal) has taken the baton of red herring status as villain de jour, the story remains firmly about Christine and her desire to not let her ailment beat her and force her into a life of submission. Kidman’s best moment comes when she asks her husband what she does all day. “I just sit here?” she wonders as if her injury has not only sent her mind 20 years into the past, but her life back to the 1950s.
The actors are all doing fine work and without them I doubt Before I Go to Sleep would work half as well. Kidman and First especially play well off one another as believably exacerbated husband and wife. The chilly British locations add to it, too, lending a film an early Hitchcock vibe. It’s cliché to say something like that, and Before I Go to Sleep is no The 39 Steps, but I appreciated how British the film was and how determined it was to keep the drama and the thrills at a very human level. Nobody in this movie develops super-human abilities, nobody speeds through rush hour traffic in heart-racing car chases, and when somebody gets hit – which is frequently – they don’t instantly get back up. Christine’s safety is never assured and that’s a tricky maneuver to pull off. Without that down-to-Earth sensibility the film wouldn’t work and in a genre that rarely offers up a mystery in this way (even Gone Girl reveals its hands very early on) I appreciated its old-school charms. Whether you predict the ending or not, it is ultimately more about Christine’s discovery of self than anything else.