Sleeping Beauty


Written by James Read
09 Sunday 09th October 2011

However, as an erotic fairytale it is neither particularly erotic, nor could it really a be called fairytale (witches and spinning wheels get minimal screen time). Sure, there's nudity, and our heroine Lucy (Emily Browning) is perfectly adept at looking good in weird revealing outfits - and with the sublimely ridiculous and fetishistic Suckerpunch as her previous role, it looks like casting directors are making the most of this. Much skin does not make for sexuality though. The bulk of the sexual energy comes from the creaky old men (and one woman, let's call her token since she has one line) who pay for Lucy and a coterie of semi-nude women to serve them.

On one occasion there is a fat old chap who is genuinely threatening - spitting and cursing over Lucy's vulnerable form, but mostly the actors cast in our den of wrinkly pervs alternate between seeming awkwardly unsure or methodically wooden. Their creepiness is checked by the madam, Clara, from reaching full rape, as she sits on the foot of Lucy's bed/prison to brief them before each 'session'- "remember, no penetration". On one painful occasion, a client seizes upon this moment to deliver a soporific fixed-shot monologue about getting old. Rather than invoke sympathy, I felt this was a conniving trick to send Lucy's mistress to sleep too so that he could execute his predatory plan in full.

Lucy certainly doesn't begin the story as the fairy tale virgin however, as she assures her brothel madam, "my vagina is not a temple". She clearly enjoys sex and recklessness. We do have a couple of scenes where our lead, well, takes the lead - for instance sitting down with two guys in a bar and cutting off their flirting abruptly to ask "which of you is going to fuck me then?" and telling them to flip a coin. But that's all we see - cut to the next day. None of her 'non-professional' sexual encounters are shown, so how she acts sexually when she's not under instruction is unclear.

Lucy's character is all held back tears and locked up emotions. Her refusal to show any reaction or drive makes it difficult to understand or judge her character (or indeed Browning's acting). To cut her some slack, it must be difficult to fill a character who's asleep in her key scenes. But it's not like the rest of her interactions are much more engaged. In one of her other jobs she works in the copy room of an office wearing headphones, visibly seizing up when her boss comes in to talk at her. Her closest friend is a softly spoken alcoholic, with whom she shares cute, false niceties and vodka with while watching TV and trying to avoid his muted adoration for her.

An interesting aside - all this may not seem much like the Disney adaptation, with princes and castles and witches and fairies. Which is because it draws from another story - The House of the Sleeping Beauties by Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata, about a lonely old man who visits a brothel full of naked and narcotic-laden young women. Interestingly, there was another film adaptation made by German actor/director Vadim Glowna in 2006. Similarly, it is regarded as pretty awful.

I have not seen the adaptation of Leigh's novel The Hunter, which opened last week in Australia, but reviews suggest that it's rather good. This lends credence to my sneaking suspicion that Leigh is best at sticking to writing stories and letting others direct. With a tighter edit and stronger directorial influence this could have been a sleeper hit (sorry). Unfortunately, as it stands there isn't enough here to hold the characters together and keep the audience's attention.

Sleeping Beauty is released in cinemas this Friday, 14 October

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