Long awaited, finally there: After filming way back in 2014, Elliott Lester’s Sleepwalker finally gets released. It has been a long time coming – and in order to avoid my new habit of never even recording my reactions to new work from Mr A’s oeuvre (Pilgrimage has never been reviewed here – which is a massive shame. After all it is set in Ireland. And unlike last year, I haven’t felt the motivation yet to review the first two episodes of BS either.) I am forcing a first response review of the film right now, even though I believe that it is the kind of film that would benefit from a few viewings before making any judgments on its merits. However, let’s take it like this: In a reviewing situation, a critic only has one opportunity to watch a film, and so the evaluation and conclusion is reached without the benefit of delving deeper into the cinematographic, dramatic and plot devices used. So here we go! Note: There will be SPOILERS!
Spoilers? Mind you, the biggest spoiler of all has already been disclosed in the trailer to the film. At least if you are an observant Armitage fan. And it gets repeated in the first few minutes of the film. After meeting the eponymous sleepwalker, a flashback takes us to the pivotal scene of the film. Sarah Wells (Ahna O’Reilly) is deeply traumatised by having witnessed her husband’s suicide. Plagued by nightmares, she returns to her university studies, hoping that a change of scenery will cure her nightly distress. Increasingly worried by her sleepwalking episodes, Sarah decides to check into a sleep clinic. That is where she meets Dr Scott White, a doctor who is quickly taking a lot of interest in her case – and her person. While Sarah finds restful sleep in the clinic, every time she wakes up after sleeping her reality seems to have changed: Her flat mate is a different woman, the clothes in her closet do not fit her anymore, the psychiatric doctor (not Dr White) whom she has consulted, does not recognise her anymore. In her nightmares, Sarah seems to seek out a particular woman – who repeatedly tells her to go away. Then there is a mysterious man who is stalking her, threatening her, actually harassing her. The only person she can trust is Dr White – to whom she turns for help and who becomes her lover. But no one in this film is who they seem, including Sarah, and the suicide witnessed in the beginning, is something entirely different…
Confused? Well, I have deliberately not summarised all of the film, because the plot of Sleepwalker has too many (unnecessary?) twists and turns to actually write them all down. But the film is deliberately creating this sensation of confusion. Because what we are actually seeing in the film is Sarah’s subconscious imagination, which is veering between dream and nightmare. And like the main character, the viewers are unable to tell reality and imagination apart – there is nothing to tell us what is true and what is imagined. No conventional techniques are used to help the viewer to distinguish between reality and dream, in fact. There are no changes in tonality or distortion as they may be conventionally used to identify dream and reality in film. But that is exactly the thing: This is quite clearly an arthouse film, both in content and in feel. The film does not want to be conventional, it breaks the rules of clarity and conventionality, right down to the plot. It remains somewhat convoluted and nebulous (with a rather quick denouement at the end), which makes the whole film look almost more about form rather than content.
More form than function?
And yes, it definitely has form, i.e. Sleepwalker has a very distinct aesthetic that also locates it in the indie genre. The tonality of the film is subdued, mostly browns and greys, a lot of darkness. There are very deliberately artful shots against the light, of sunsets through bike wheels, and lens-flare effects. A weird juxtaposition is the retro feel of the styling – this applies both to the costume choices in the film (with particularly the lead character displaying a rather strange, 60s inspired look), as well as the production design that uses a lot of mid-century furnishings. I found this weird dichotomy of the 60s style – Sarah’s costume, the architecture of the 60s apartment complex she lives in, the retro furniture in the apartments/offices that are shown, even Dr White’s (70s inspired?) coat and his pick-up truck
(interesting choice for a medical doctor) – and a clear anchoring in the present (the iPhones, the medical equipment in the sleep clinic) distracting and weird. Which function does this styling serve? Sarah is *not* a person from the past; she is contemporary. Her flat mates and the “other woman” are shown in contemporary dress – so there must be a significance in the noticeably retro dress sense… Maybe even signalling what is real and what is imagined. For me, it was distracting and weird, even if the retro styling has the effect of making the design of the film look strangely timeless – with an emphasis on “strange”. But it is no doubt a very indie, edgy kind of aesthetic, and while that challenges me, I also liked the risk that the film makers took with such a choice.
Where, in my opinion, the film falls down, is in the lack of a gradual or comprehensible piecing together of the mystery that Sarah is trying to solve. There is no linear development whereby the main character would gather more and more pieces of the puzzle that finally enable her to understand what is happening. It is not as if she is discovering the mystery of the changing reality step-by-step and with one new fact leading to another. Instead, it seems as if she eventually just has some sort of “enlightened moment” in which she understands what is happening. As a conventional cinema-goer, I did not find this approach particularly attractive – I would’ve preferred a linear approach, almost like a murder-mystery kind of hunt for the truth where I, as the viewer, am joining the hunt, turning over the pieces of evidence in my mind as we go along. As it is, it felt as if the film had spent 45 minutes unnecessarily covering various mysterious reality-changing episodes in Sarah’s life only to then suddenly spring a resolution onto the heroine and the audience. There was an element of “why are you showing me the same thing over and over again?” to my viewing experience. That is not to say the film was boring – but I think it is a fine line between artful reinforcement and tiresome repetition.
There is also a fine line between portraying mental illness as a serious condition and stigmatising it as “madness”. In that sense, I found some of the design choices of the film problematic: The institution that Sarah is sent to is scary – with mentally ill people wandering around aimlessly in corridors, bare rooms devoid of stimulation, and treatments that involve hand and leg cuffs. Sure, this is supposed to be a nightmarish scene, yet I can’t help but wonder whether such scenes, even if determined by artistic decisions, help reinforce stereotypes. Moreover, the irony wasn’t lost on me that this film was actually released on World Mental Health Day.
I found that a rather sick joke, tbh.
However, the film is very effective in creating a sense of unease, even horror, about the mysteriously changing reality around Sarah. If mental instability manifests itself like this, how horrific must that be for a sufferer?! Indeed, Sleepwalker had me thinking about mental health and issues of identity/reality construction for a good 24 hours after watching. Reality, as the film purports, is a mere construction in our dreams. We create it – and our identity within it – to suit our mental stability. I found this an interesting idea to play with – as a fan, equipped with a lively imagination, I am no stranger to the construction of realities that involve a handsome bearded man *coughs*. Not necessarily in the role of a doctor. Oh, and not necessarily even with a beard. But always as a dreamboat that I catch whenever I feel I am sinking.
Damsel in Distress on a Dreamboat
Talking of dreamboats – this review is subtitled “Nightmare with a Dreamboat” – so let’s get to the acting in the piece. From the stills released prior to watching the film, I was worried that O’Reilly only had one facial expression to offer in the piece. But no, she is actually very good in Sleepwalker, ably portraying a mentally disturbed person. Particularly in the breakdown scenes where she is either scared and traumatised, or scared and violently defensive, she is very effective. Her character doesn’t give her that much scope for acting normality, though, as she has portray a confused person who has trouble making sense of the continually twisting reality around her. While the character is written as the figure of identification for the piece, I have to say I never quite warmed towards Sarah. That’s not really O’Reilly’s fault – I just couldn’t identify with the passivity of Sarah, and the traces of ‘damsel in distress’ – including the picturebook gothic horror virgin in billowing white nightgown (see left) with long luscious locks and wide eyes.
And Armitage, well, he *is* the Dreamboat of the piece, in every sense of the word. He may have put us on the wrong track by hinting that “Dr Scott White is not what he seems”. Because that little hint does not refer to some dark secret that the character harbours. Dr White is the saviour in this film, unequivocally positive, and even the unprofessionally close (romantic) relationship he quickly engages in with his patient. It all makes sense in the end why he does so – because [major SPOILER] he is a figment of Sarah’s imagination. He does not exist, and thus she fashions in her mind the ideal of the ‘knight in shining armour’, the man who believes her, helps her, saves her and loves her. Armitage gets to display a wider scope of emotions here and brings across the medical professional as well as the emotionally involved friend/lover. Several bonuses: “DIY Armitage” in snug jeans and exposed forearms nailing something against the wall; “Saviour Armitage” in full carrying-the-damsel mode; “Wall Action Armitage” with more nailing activity of the *other* kind; and some “Caring Armitage” with thumb caresses, fragile wrist bones, spooning and tender cupped-hand-on-head gestures.
Yes, all of that makes this film very worth-while.
Yes, Armitage fills this role very well. Yet I don’t really think he had to properly stretch his acting chops in this role. He is not quite totty in the film, but neither is he given room to show the full extent of his abilities. One only wishes that he were to do ‘his thing’ in a lead role rather than supporting character. He quite clearly has what it takes to be a leading man – the artistic capabilities, the looks, the general appeal. It is a disappointment to see him time and again supporting other (and sometimes lesser) actors without getting a sufficient vehicle to showcase his own talent on the big screen.
So what is the final verdict on Sleepwalker? In my case, it is as confused as I perceived the film to be. I definitely did not feel bored watching it, yet I do think that it had one or two twists/confused reality examples too many. I did like the general aesthetics of the film, but I was (negatively) distracted by the odd styling of the lead character and the weird retro vibe of the production design. I enjoyed the general premise, as well as the actual solution of the film, yet I was disappointed that I basically knew where it was headed right from that scene at the beginning – and from the major spoiler that was contained in the trailer. I enjoyed some of the issues that are being taken up in the film – reality as a construction – but I felt the conclusion of the film came too quick and left too many questions unanswered. If there is something I unequivocally enjoyed in the film, it is the performances of the two leads who – individually – were great choices for the role of the doe-eyed innocent victim, and the slightly dubious
yet massively delicious saviour. That said, I am not sure whether the casting is entirely successful – I suspect that a slightly younger male lead may have matched O’Reilly a bit better. (And before you come at me with APM: No, I do not mean to say that Armitage is too old or looks too old; I am just suggesting that *together* these two actors may not quite match.)
My notes contain a few other points, but I am going to leave it at this for now. If you haven’t seen Sleepwalker yet, I would recommend you do. For Armitage fans, Sleepwalker is an interesting new genre to explore, where Richard is
once-again typecast as a slightly dubious character – only to turn out the good kind, for a change. And I think it is a great departure for Armitage in terms of participation in an arthouse project that has distinctly artistic direction, content and cinematography. I only wish it had been a little clearer…