Sleeping Beauty Review
Lucy (Emily Browning) is a student trying hard to make ends meet. She does this at first by a series of odd jobs, including volunteering for medical experiments. It's a short step for her from that to casual prostitution and answering an advertisement for a silver-service waitress who serves at wealthy clients' dinner parties in fetishistic underwear. Then comes an offer: she will be drugged and while she is asleep her clients can do anything they like to her, though not including penetration. And soon Lucy is curious to find out what happens while she sleeps...
Julia Leigh (born 1970) was previously a novelist. Her first novel, The Hunter has become another new Australian film, directed by Daniel Nettheim and starring Willem Dafoe: it opened in Australia on 6 October 2011 but as it has not yet had a UK release announced, I haven't seen it. Leigh wrote Sleeping Beauty as a screenplay, and it appeared on this list of the hottest unproduced scripts in Hollywood of 2008. With the help of Jane Campion (who served as executive producer) the film was made, Leigh directing her own script. The premise is undeniably provocative so you can see what aroused that interest three years ago. You can also see what attracted Campion to it: the exploration into the murkier waters of female sexuality and heterosexual relations seen in terms of power and powerlessness. (However, one of the clients at the dinner party is a woman – that's something Leigh doesn't explore and simply leaves hanging.) The result is a mixed blessing, both very interesting and significantly flawed at the same time.
Leigh certainly doesn't play safe as a director, shooting many key scenes in single uninterrupted, if not especially mobile, takes. She doesn't spare her cast much, what with full-frontal nudity of both sexes on display. The treatment of this subject matter is deliberately distanced, so unlikely to be especially erotic for most viewers. Leigh benefits from a very strong and surely physically demanding performance from Emily Browning (that gastroscopy in the opening scene didn't look faked to me) that should be an awards contender, if maybe only in Australia, at year's end. It's quite normal for a first-time director to be partnered with an experienced DP, and Geoffrey Simpson's lighting is first-rate. And in a time when too many film soundtracks are overstuffed with music, the quietness of the sound design only enhances a subtly disturbing mood.
On the other hand, the script has its moments of pretentiousness (the line “Your vagina is a temple” is probably the worst offender, but it's run close by one of Lucy's clients narrating a short story to camera). It also has the problem that there's little conflict: Lucy seems for the most part untroubled by selling her body, and the main turning point happens when the film is more than two-thirds over. Also, her relationship with depressed student Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), who seems to be her only friend, doesn't carry the weight that it should.
There's clearly filmmaking talent here, though it isn't fully developed. I would still be interested in what Julia Leigh does next.