Novelist Julia Leigh’s directorial debut is a strange and uncomfortable drama that is both beautiful and ugly at the same time. Some have taken offence to its subject matter, whereas others (such as the Daily Mail’s critic Chris Tookey) have criticised it for its slow meandering narrative. Tookey described it as ‘very, very, very boring’.
This is an Australian film, overseen by The Piano director Jane Campion. It’s an odd project for her to involver herself with, but it does have a dreamlike quality reminiscent of Campion’s work.
Emily Browning currently seems very eager to play objectified young women (she recently starred in Zack Snyder’s leer-fest Sucker Punch). Here she is Lucy, a university student trying to earn money. She works as a waitress, photocopies papers in offices and also dabbles in prostitution. Then a mysterious job opportunity comes her way. It involves her being drugged into a dreamless sleep while old men get to caress her body and get into bed with her, under the agreement that she will not be harmed or penetrated.
I can, to some extend, see where the ‘very boring’ criticism has come from. The film does deliberately lack drive, most notably around three quarters of the way through, when Leigh’s screenplay seems a little lost as to which way to go next. The direction she chooses, which sees Lucy push against the strict rules set by her employers, doesn’t really amount to much.
However, I have to confess that I found the film very interesting for the most part. The style of filming Leigh works with – harnessing steady, static shots with carefully chosen colour schemes – is mesmerising and intelligently handled. I was reminded of Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, more than once throughout Sleeping Beauty, as the film shares traits both tonally, narratively and stylistically with that picture without trying to copy it or parody its dark themes.
There are times when first-time feature directors make debuts that don’t quite hold up to scrutiny as a whole, but still contain many fascinating aspects and demonstrate a vibrant new talent. This is such a film. It is far from an overall success, but Leigh does some really interesting things with a challenging story. It asks questions about where the male viewer’s gaze is directed, and pokes at literature and art’s strange fascination with sleeping females (hence the title’s nod to the famous fairytale). Many may not be willing to have such a provocative debate, especially when confronted with some of the strong material in this film. But it’s an interesting discussion all the same, and Leigh has made a memorable impression with this small but quietly hypnotic piece of work.
Sleeping Beauty (2011), directed by Julia Leigh, is distributed in the UK on Blu-ray and DVD by Revolver Entertainment, Certificate 18. Sensitive viewers may wish to seek further information about the content of the film from www.bbfc.co.uk.