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‘Sleep’ mystifies awhile, then collapses

“Before I Go To Sleep” is one of those thrillers where you hold your breath for different reasons: first in suspense over what will happen, then in the vain hope the explanation won’t be what you expect, and finally out of politeness to other moviegoers. Otherwise, you’d expel a gust of disgust that a promising story turns into the kind of preposterous woman-in-jeopardy flicks Ashley Judd made in the 1990s.

How writer-director Simon Joffe persuaded Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong to combine for this project remains a mystery. So does the release date: It’s not aimed at crowds looking for Halloween scares, nor is it a fall contender for awards season. (If I ever saw a candidate for an August release, this is it.) And yet it begins so well...

Kidman plays Christine Lucas, whose brain was damaged in an attack 10 years before and who loses her memory each night when she sleeps. Her husband (Firth), who has covered the kitchen wall with explanatory photographs, tells her the situation every morning before going off to teach chemistry.

Then she gets a phone call from a doctor (Strong) who wanted to treat her at the time of her injury but was denied access. He has seen her in a park, recognized her from a photograph taken a decade ago – it’s that kind of movie – and has given her a camera, so she can record impressions every day and play them to herself the next morning.

A pretty inflexible rule applies to these stories: The first person to lie to the victim has dastardly motives, and we soon learn who that is. Joffe, who adapted the novel by S.J. Watson, proceeds to baffle us for a bit but commits the cardinal sin of thriller filmmaking: The ending means most of the stuff that came before could never have happened.

The three main actors do their jobs adequately. I happened to see Kidman’s much better suspense film, “The Others,” this week: She’s adept at playing buttoned-down characters whose porcelain surfaces crack inch by inch. Firth wears his usual sad-faced look, and Strong sounds a single note of quiet support.

Cinematographer Ben Davis, who shot the gaudy “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the vibrant “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” does well with a darker approach here. I’ve heard this is the last film to use Fuji 35 mm stock; if so, that’s like seeing a once-prized restaurant go out with a plate of peanut-butter sandwiches.

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