The Firth Amendment
Summer is officially over. How do I know? Easy: they are starting to release Colin Firth movies again. Fine actor though he is, Mr Firth's essential Englishness takes an idiosyncratic form, in that he never seems to come out in the sun (not unlike myself, I suppose). In one of those quirks of production and release, a veritable flock of Firth movies is on the horizon: he's in this year's Woody Allen, due out in a few weeks, and slightly further off he turns up in Matthew Vaughn's new comic-book adaptation, too. Right now, however, he is in Rowan Joffe's Before I Go To Sleep, based on the book by SJ Watson.
It would be remiss of me to give the impression that this is a full-on Colin Firth vehicle like The King's Speech, however, as once again he is essentially giving support to the leading lady (though a chick-flick this probably isn't). On this occasion the top-billed star is Nicole Kidman, deploying a fairly decent English accent to match the movie's greater London setting.
Kidman (adopting vaguely unflattering hair for the occasion) plays Christine, a youngish woman with a peculiar problem. (I say youngish because the film, for no very necessary reason, repeatedly states she is 40, a fair few years younger than the actress herself. Hmmm.) Following a traumatic incident in her past, she is afflicted with one of those rare and discriminating forms of amnesia most often to be found in movies: every night her memory resets, erasing the previous day's recollections and leaving her with no idea of who or where she is.
Luckily the first person she meets every day (Firth, who has very good hair for his age now I think about it) is able to fill her in on minor details such as her name, who he is (Ben, her husband), what exactly is going on, and so on.
However, unbeknownst to Ben, Christine has embarked on a new course of therapy – or so it seems, anyway. A man (Mark Strong, who... well, you can't have everything, can you) calls her up every morning claiming to be Dr Nasch, her neuropsychologist, and reminding her of the existence of a digital camera she is using as a sort of external back-up memory.
Naturally all this is very confusing to Christine, whose Movie Amnesia means that she has to take a lot of what she hears on trust. It just makes things worse when the things that Ben tell her seem not to tally with those she hears from Dr Nasch – Ben claims she was injured in a car accident, but according to the doctor she was the victim of a savage beating from an unknown assailant. Is everyone being completely straight with her? And can she possibly uncover the truth about her past?
Well, long-term moviewatchers will already know that the answers to these questions are 'Almost certainly not' and 'Very probably', for this wouldn't be much of a thriller otherwise. And a thriller is ultimately what this is – the kind of mid-budget genre movie I seem to remember watching rather a lot when I first started reviewing movies for the Post (so watching Before I Go To Sleep was an oddly nostalgic experience for me). That said, the presence of a quality cast like this one means that the dramatic and emotional elements of the story have obviously been spruced up, possibly to the point where they could be accused of milking it a bit.
Overall, though, we're in a vaguely Hitchcockian territory, even if I can't help thinking Hitch would have made the movie a bit more intense a bit earlier. Everything starts off fairly low-key and naturalistic, which gives you plenty of time to mull over what you're being presented with. I have to say that well within the first ten minutes I was thinking 'this is utterly preposterous, no way would normal people possibly be capable of behaving this way', but – very much to the film's credit – by the time the closing credits roll, everything that had occurred seemed a lot more credible.
The nature of the film requires that Firth and Strong engage in a sort of contest to see who can be the most understatedly sinister, which is a lot of fun (hard to pick a winner, by the way) but the focus is very much on Kidman for most of the film. In keeping with the wintry, claustrophobic atmosphere of the film, Kidman gives a performance based pretty much on a single note of fraught, brittle anxiety. Christine spends most of the movie as a passive victim, which put together with some male-on-female violence might make this film problematic for some viewers – naturally she gets her own back, to a degree, before proceedings are concluded.
It took me a while to warm up to Before I Go To Sleep, mainly due to the mismatch between the film's rather contrived and unlikely premise and its downbeat and serious style, but the strong performances of the three leads, coupled to a bravura twist at the end of the second act, eventually won me over. I think an actual winter release would have suited it better, simply because I'm not sure people are in quite the right mood for such an intense, intimate movie, but that doesn't change the fact that this is a solidly entertaining piece of film-making.