|Image: Revolver Entertainment|
Writer/director Julia Leigh’s debut feature comes with an “Approved” stamp from Jane Campion, the Oscar-winner filmmaker behind The Piano. We were interested to see whether this controversial, highly sexualised feminist fairytale went beyond shock-value.
Lucy (Emily Browning) is a student who moonlights as a prostitute. One day she answers a classified and takes a job working for Clara who tells her that she should treat the money she earns working for her as a sudden windfall and that there will be no penetration.
The easiest accusation to level at Sleeping Beauty is that it’s all veneer and no heart. But then heart doesn’t exactly seem to be the point, and what a veneer it is. Leigh’s often-static camera frames the meetings between Lucy and Clara, then Lucy and her clients, like an oil painting. It’s hard to think of a film this beautifully shot since I Am Love. This artistic veneer, the coldness, the heartlessness of the transaction, is part of the point. Lucy is highly aware of her sexuality, she needs money and she uses her body to fix that problem.
But this outer beauty isn’t quite enough. As the film reaches the halfway mark, Leigh starts to repeat herself until Lucy has a revelation that doesn’t quite convince. Because the film is so icily clinical and determined to present the provocative subject matter from a distance, turning the viewer into a voyeur, there’s never really an emotional connection with Lucy. Leigh tries to add another dimension to Lucy with her relationship with depressed friend Birdman (Ewen Leslie), but we’re given few details about their history. The second half tries to widen the film’s focus but it only works fleetingly.
Browning (Sucker Punch) gives a very brave performance. It’s to the film’s credit that the camera never leers, but instead presents Lucy’s transactions with honesty, rarely cutting or changing angle. As we’re shown what happens to Lucy after she goes to sleep, it’s hard to understate Browning’s commitment to the role.
The problem is that there’s nothing really driving the story. Because the film goes to such lengths to keep Lucy unknowable, it’s impossible to connect with her. And while that makes it icily beautiful and often beguiling, the film’s detachment finally renders the final scenes uninvolving. At the same time, Leigh’s determination to stick to her guns makes it a hard film to forget.
Verdict: Stunningly photographed and with a bold turn from Browning, Sleeping Beauty isn’t quite hollow but there’s not enough going on under the surface.