“Before” not as clever as it needs to be

“Before” not as clever as it needs to be

I’ve often wondered why directors attempt to follow in the steps of Alfred Hitchcock.  Having nearly singlehandedly created the paranoid thriller, modern filmmakers unwisely invite comparisons to the master’s work and they usually come out on the losing end, unable to build the sort of suspense or use the kind of intelligence found in such films as “Notorious,” “Rope” or “Psycho.” Rowan Joffe’s “Before I Go To Sleep” is a case in point, a would-be thriller with an intriguing premise that winds up not being nearly as clever as it wants to be, becoming far too ridiculous to be taken seriously.

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A game Nicole Kidman stars as Christine, a woman with a tragic condition – she wakes up each morning with no memory of anything from her life – not her name, not her husband, not any of her experiences.  (If you’ve seen the Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore feature “50 First Dates,” a film with a distinctly different tone than this feature, you have some idea of what this woman’s up against.)  Thankfully she has a patient husband in Ben (Colin Firth) who gets her up to speed on a daily basis and seems to have no problem with the fact that any progress he may make on a given day to garner her trust, will be wiped clean once Christine’s head hits the pillow and her eyes are closed.

However – and this is a big “however”- Christine is getting help from Dr. Nasch (Marc Strong), a therapist who calls her each day to remind her that she’s keeping a video diary of all she’s learned from previous days and that she needs to watch it to keep current with what’s going on in her life.  Upon looking at the footage of herself dictating to the camera, she finds out that Ben is hiding things from her and should not be trusted. 

Well, this is quite a lot to swallow and, as always happens in films of this sort, leads to other questions.  Such as, why is Dr. Nasch taking so much time out of each day to minster to Christine? Is theirs more than just a doctor/patient relationship?  And just what role does her best friend Claire (Anne-Marie Duff) play in all of this? And what really happened to her son?

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For sure, there’s a great deal on Christine’s plate and Joffe plays both ends against the middle, succeeding in making us doubt both Ben and Nasch, though their motives are murky at best.  More than any other Hitchcock film, “Suspicion” comes to mind here, the feature in which poor Joan Fontaine thinks that her husband played by Cary Grant actually wants to kill her.  This idea crosses Christine’s mind more than once and the only thing that keeps us engaged long after the script has taken up residence in Sillytown is Kidman’s performance. She perfectly captures her character’s sense of confusion and frustration as well as her growing sense of strength throughout.  She does her best to will this into being a good film and its fun to watch her try. She gets little help from Firth, who’s far too distant and cold, while Strong is given too little to do for us to care about him one way or another. 

In the end, it’s Joffe who’s responsible for the film’s undoing and while he did adapt the story from a best-selling novel by S.J. Watson, he needs to realize that some things that play on the page, appears clunky and labored on screen.  Such is the case with “Before,” a film that stumbles towards its finish, taxing our patience every step of the way.

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