An unsympathetic protagonist is the most damning aspect of Rowan Joffé’s formulaic and sedate adaptation of the best-selling novel.
Before I Fell Asleep by Dave O’Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
There’s an inherent “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dichotomy associated with the film adaptation of a well-loved book. A slavish reverence to the source material will often lead to criticism that there’s no imagination or ingenuity, and to deviate too far will aggravate the fanbase and in-turn potentially upset box office. The degree of success a film adaptation enjoys often depends on how conducive the source material is to adaptation. In the case of S.J. Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep, the narrative device is the narration of the protagonist through her journal. Widely regarded as the most difficult literary device to adapt, her internal monologue adds nuance and personality to the character. Replacing a journal with a video diary, writer/director Rowan Joffé’s adaptation lacks personality, emotion and worst of all for a thriller – intrigue.
Following a traumatic accident in her past, Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) wakes up every day with no knowledge of who she is. Suffering with atypical psychogenic amnesia, Christine’s disorder means that she has an inability to recall personal information which includes the circumstances that caused her condition. Her therapist Dr. Nash (Mark Strong) suggests that Christine keep a record of each day’s memories in order to reconstruct her past. Maintaining a video diary, her state of paranoia is perpetuated every morning when she wakes up to her husband Ben (Colin Firth), who she perceives to be a stranger. As her video diary grows, she becomes more determined to discover the truth about who she is, casting doubt on the knowledge she gleans from Ben and Dr. Nash.
An extreme close-up of Christine’s bloodshot eyeball is an intriguing opening to Rowan Joffé’s dreary psychological thriller. The tight lensing of the main character’s dilated eye serves as an immediate insight (no pun intended) into her cyclical and daily battle with paranoia and confusion. It’s not entirely positive that the opening shot of the film stands out to such a degree, because after twenty five minutes or so you are craving anything that’s nearly as ingenuitive as this. The most fundamental issue with Joffe’s adaptation is that we develop a stone cold indifference to Christine’s situation in the early beats of the film. Depicting a character who shares her inner most thoughts and feelings at length in the novel is a much more complicated process in film. The unflinching focus on one of either terrified, distraught or confused Christine means that there is little to no connection for the audience to a character without a discernable personality.
In addition to a performance which in effect puts Kidman in a straitjacket, Joffé’s sedate and languid style of direction adds an unfortunate multiplier effect to an otherwise one-note performance. There’s nothing particularly imaginative or unusual about Joffé’s interpretation of the novel. For all intents and purposes, the writer/director appears to be playing it safe, as if he’s been compelled somehow to turn out a run-of-the-mill thriller for mainstream mediocrity. The film ambles from one plot contrivance to the next, and often because you’ve lost all interest in everything else, you spend your time questioning the logic of the story as opposed to being captivated by it all. Attempts to inject suspense and shock value feel manipulative and contrived, particularly where they are as obvious as trying to startle the audience with a fast moving forklift or bin truck.
For a narrative to rely so heavily on repeating the same set-up ad-nauseum, the relocation from the Crouch End of the book to the countryside is a mind-bogglingly bizarre decision. It’s no doubt an effort to intensify the claustrophobic isolation of Christine’s predicament, but the muted and washed-out greys of her post-modern home only intensify your alienation from the plot. It’s only a slight deviation from the novel but has a significant impact on the already sedate tone of the film. In addition, Colin Firth and Mark Strong never feel fully invested in their roles, Firth does an admirable job of playing the mysterious and often distraught husband, but frustratingly, both actors have little to play with.
Potentially encumbered by the weight of its Oscar-winning cast and best-selling source material, Before I Go To Sleep is a dull and tepid thriller. Joffé’s pedigree in screenwriting on previous projects highlights an ambitious and talented writer; from his entertaining revamp of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, to co-writing credits on the excellent 28 Weeks Later. Where he successfully wrangled the prose of one of the great writers of the 20th century with Brighton Rock, his adaptation of Watson’s novel results in a painfully dull cinematic experience.
Before I Go To Sleep is released on 5th September 2014 in the UK