Sunday 14 September 2014

How Not to End a Movie

Before I Go to Sleep is an engrossing and clever thriller. It is directed by Rowan Joffe with a script by him based on the novel by S.J. Watson. (Joffe previously wrote an excellent screenplay for the outstanding George Clooney thriller The American.) Before I Go to Sleep is also superbly cast (Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong) and beautifully photographed. 

Unfortunately, it features a final scene so badly miscalculated that it almost nullifies all the positive qualities of the preceding movie. And for anyone interested in movie scripts or film storytelling, it's worth briefly considering what went wrong here...

Inevitably, this is going to involve some spoilers, so if you think you might want to see the movie, I strongly advise you to watch it and only then read this. Thrillers thrive on surprise, and I'm about to let some cats out of the bag.

First, however, I'd like to cite another movie which blundered spectacularly in its final moments – and for much the same reason. Billy Elliot was a touching story of a skinny working class kid who wants to be — of all things — a ballet dancer. Against all the odds, and predictable prejudices, he succeeds. 

And at the end of the movie we jump ten years to watch the grown up Billy in action. Suddenly there's this big hairy bastard we've never seen before, and don't know from Adam, bounding around on stage. The grandiose ending just doesn't work — because we have no emotional investment in this stranger. Who is this big hairy bastard? Where's the plucky, skinny kid whose plight we've come to care about? Catastrophically misjudged, I say.

Similarly, at the end of Before I Go to Sleep, our amnesiac heroine, played by Nicole Kidman, is reunited with the husband and son she thought she'd lost forever. And we are given to understand that her memory is coming back. 

The problem is, we've never seen the husband and son before in the movie. Not as they are now. So they come across as total strangers. And the grand emotional ending has no emotion impact whatsoever. The reaction of the audience is, Who are these jokers? 

Rowan Joffe pulls out all the stops for this tearful reunion, pouring on syrupy music and drawing the camera back in a long retreating tracking shot. All to no avail. 

I'm afraid the patient is dead on the table, doc. No amount of electricity shot through this corpse will ever make it sit up. I guess the only way to conceivably make such a scene work would be to cast huge stars as the husband and son. Maybe Johnny Depp for the hubbie. And for the kid — Christ, I don't know — Justin Beiber? That at least would make the audience think they knew these people. But even that might not work.

There is an old screenwriting adage: Show, don't tell. Meaning you should dramatise a scene and actually see it, rather than just try and report it in dialogue. Well, in this case Joffe should have done exactly the opposite. Tell, don't show.

Do it as a scene between Kidman and Mark Strong as her sympathetic shrink, both of whom we've come to know well throughout the movie, and let their dialogue indicate Kidman's recovery.

I don't want to pillory Before I Go to Sleep, which is otherwise a good film. But this really is how not to end a movie.

(Image credits: All the pictures are from Ace Show Biz.)

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