AMNESIA is always popular in the movies. Back in the 1940s, it was deployed as a form of shellshock in Spellbound or Random Harvest. More recently Matt Damon, Emma Thompson and Jim Carrey forgot who they were in films that, in some cases, faded from audiences’ memories too.
A more modern form of amnesia allows its victim to retain some of their past, but leaves them unable to record new memories; a syndrome which affected Guy Pearce in Memento, Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates, and now Nicole Kidman in Before I Go To Sleep.
The film begins with a series of decent jolts: a woman wakes up and finds a strange naked man sleeping beside her. Then she discovers a wall of pictures of her that she doesn’t recall, and a face in the mirror that has prematurely aged.
Christine (Kidman) survived a mysterious car accident in her twenties, but can now only store events for 24 hours. Every night, when she falls asleep, she effectively wipes her mind of the day, and each morning she has to relearn the circumstances of her life: where she lives, that she is now in her 40s, and that the man in her bed is her husband Ben (Colin Firth).
A world that never transcends the present sounds terrifying, and yet Christine has no problem handling the mobile phone Ben leaves with her when he goes to work. For someone locked in the past, that microwave in the kitchen must be a daily voyage of discovery too, but the biggest surprise is a phone call from a Dr Nash (Mark Strong), who reminds her that she keeps a secret diary using a video camera. Of course, she has no problem switching it on and retrieving the digital recordings. Christine, please come to my house and programme my TiVo.
The video journal helps her discover things she has forgotten – for instance, that Ben isn’t keen on this doctor, so they have to meet in secret. Is that because he has given up on finding a cure for Christine? Or is he jealous of her relationship with Dr Nash? Or is Ben preventing Christine from finding out uncomfortable truths about her past? And if she does find out the truth, what is to stop her forgetting it all a few hours later?
Adapted from S J Watson’s bestseller by director Rowan Joffe, Before I Go To Sleep is chiefly a grand manipulation with just about enough clever twists to keep you, if not on the edge of your seat, at least happily alert, guessing along with the plot.
Joffe’s cinematic underlining and italicising is less Hitchcock, more superior TV drama, with lots of lingering shots of darting, untruthful eyes, but his film is taut and although Kidman is now on the cooler north face of female stardom, she is still a pro. Firth, Strong and latterly Anne-Marie Duff also bring professionally distressed acting chops to the proceedings.
As our population lives longer, these movies about short-term memory loss may operate as reminders of Alzheimer’s, or a rebuke to our modern, egregiously short attention span. Before I Go To Sleep might have been making those points too; but it is so slight, I can’t remember.
General release from Friday