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Review: 'Before I Go to Sleep' is well-acted, beautiful and absolutely asinine

Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong give their all in a dumb twist-a-thon.
Before I Go to Sleep

Nicole Kidman is sleeping with the potential enemy (Colin Firth) in "Before I Go tSparham, Clarius Entertainment

‘Before I Go to Sleep’
Director: Rowan Joffe
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

The British twist-o-rama “Before I Go to Sleep” is mind-bogglingly stupid, the kind whose dumbness is only revealed gradually. But is inanity really a crime? Can a film be asinine and illogical and incompetent and still have, say, some terrific performances (or at least parts of them) or get at a real, nagging feeling? And if it can have those, can it still be rapped across the wrists for wasting a potentially nifty premise with distracting shoddy presentation?

Let’s say it can, and let’s even say that it’s not really a problem that this is a sloppy ripoff of “Memento.” Nicole Kidman is Christine, who wakes up one morning next to a man (Colin Firth) she visibly doesn’t appear to know. She stumbles into the bathroom to find Polaroids all over the wall, ones in the style of “Memento,” with notes that say the man in the other room is Mike, her husband. Soon Mike himself gravely, wearily but patiently tells her that she suffered a brain injury that makes her forget everything upon waking. No sooner does he leave for work that she gets a phonecall from one Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), who strongly suggests Mike is not her husband. But can Dr. Nasch be trusted either?

“Before I Go to Sleep” really only has this one quandary, and it’s not hard to figure out which is the baddie. It tries to fog things up with clever casting. Can we really not trust Colin Firth, even though he does occasionally play unsavory antagonists, and well (“The English Patient,” “Shakespeare in Love”)? And can we trust Strong, A a chameleon with an unmistakably velvety, untrustworthy voice, who almost exclusively plays hissable villains (in “Sherlock Holmes,” “Robin Hood,” “Kick-Ass” and more)? The film is either playing against type or playing against playing against type. You might as well flip a coin.

On top of this, writer-director Rowan Joffe (adapting what seems like an airport page-turner, by J.W. Wastson) is not “Memento”’s Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. After a corker of a beginning, it actually jumps back two weeks, then works its way back to the present and beyond. It can be clever at doling out its surprises anyway, but it lacks the precision needed to keep us guessing. Even once it’s apparent where this is going, it’s still acting like it’s whipping out bombshells.

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And yet everyone really does give it their all. Strong’s work is truly subtle, while Firth absolutely murders (which is to say underplays) a scene where Mike reveals that he and Christine have a dead son, whom he’s hidden from her because he can’t handle having to reveal it to her every day. Kidman commits herself fully to the hokum, treating it like Shakespeare. Sometimes she even convinces us the material might be smarter than it looks. It isn’t, but it does get at a real feeling of isolation and helplessness, creating a dread about not being able to trust anyone and not being in control of one’s life. Joffe (son of “The Killing Fields”’s Roland, and the director of 2011’s so-so take on “Brighton Rock”) is a better director than writer, his tight cinemascope frames getting so close to Kidman that they seem to trap her more than she already is. It’s a pretty, beautifully acted turd.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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