Before I Go To Sleep is the first sexually charged thriller that could also serve as an unofficial sequel to an Adam Sandler comedy. The comedy in question, 2004’s 50 First Dates, co-starred Drew Barrymore as a woman who had suffered a head injury in a car accident a year earlier. As a result, she had a very peculiar form of amnesia: whenever she woke up in the morning, she believed it to be the morning of the accident, because she couldn’t remember anything that had happened since. She could accumulate memories as the day wore on, but when she went to sleep that night, those new memories were erased, and the following morning she was back to square one.
I’m not saying that SJ Watson was inspired by 50 First Dates when he wrote his best-selling mystery novel, Before I Go to Sleep, but the movie adaptation certainly explores some of the shadowy avenues which Sandler’s comedy left open.
In place of Barrymore, the film stars Kidman, but her character has an almost identical medical condition. When she wakes up, she can’t remember where she is, so her husband, played by Colin Firth, has to break the news about her car accident and her subsequent amnesia. He does this with a nice mix of tenderness and tight-jawed weariness: he has obviously described the situation to her many, many times before. And Kidman’s amnesia is even more extreme than Barrymore’s. It’s not just the years since the head injury that have been blotted out, but several of the previous years, too. What this means is that Kidman and Firth enjoyed a long, happy marriage prior to her injury, but she can’t recall any of it. She is sharing a bed with a man she doesn’t recognise.
If that weren’t nightmarish enough, Firth goes out to his teaching job every morning, leaving Kidman alone in a stark, isolated house in the wintry English countryside. One morning she receives a phone call from a doctor played by Mark Strong. He tells her that they’ve been working together to restore her memory. He also tells her that she wasn’t injured in a car crash: she was attacked and left for dead by an unknown assailant. Kidman realises that either Firth or Strong must be lying to her about her injury – and could be lying to her about a lot more besides. But how can she possibly uncover the truth? And if she does uncover it, what’s to stop her forgetting it all a few hours later?
Cat and mouse
The brilliance of this plot is that it puts the viewer in the same position as the heroine. She doesn’t know anything more about her predicament than we do. It also renders her chillingly defenceless. She is entirely dependent on other people, and yet she is unable to trust any of them. Kidman didn’t have much luck playing the archetypal Hitchcock heroine, Grace Kelly, in the universally derided biopic Grace of Monaco. But here she excels as the kind of blonde-in-a-tight-corner that got Hitchcock’s creative juices flowing.
It’s fair to say, though, that the writer-director of Before I Go to Sleep, Roland Joffé, is no Hitchcock. He keeps us on our toes, delivering jolts and revelations at satisfyingly regular intervals, but he doesn’t give his film much more flair than the average television detective drama. He also undersells the disturbing premise. With her twig-like frame and watery, bloodshot eyes, Kidman is has previously been a master at projecting anxious vulnerability, but her character doesn’t seem too upset about what’s happened to her in this film. She doesn’t go to pieces at the sight of her 40-year-old self in the mirror – nor does she hesitate to get intimate with her husband. True, it probably helps that her husband looks like Colin Firth, but he is effectively a complete stranger - an issue which Joffe sometimes appears to forget. He seems to be so intent on piecing together Kidman’s past that he doesn’t quite exploit the mind-bending horror of her present.
Still, Joffe can be forgiven for focusing on his film’s central mystery when that mystery is so intriguing. He has constructed a briskly paced, devilishly clever cat-and-mouse game, with a shivery atmosphere and an impressively tight focus. Anne-Marie Duff crops up in some later scenes, but for most of the film, the only actors we see are Kidman, Firth and Strong. As summer movies grow ever bigger and longer, and digitally-enhanced action sequences grow ever more excessive, there’s something to be said for a taut, twisty, old-fashioned little suspense thriller. It’s not easy to remember the last time we saw one.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.