Review – Sleeper’s Wake: The flowers of violence

2012-07-21 07:47

The audience was raving after the opening of director Barry Berk’s harrowing debut feature at the Durban International Film Festival last night.

Sleeper’s Wake is one of the most technically impressive South African features we’ve seen in years, offering astonishing nature and animal sequences and venturing into some very adult territory – if you like your films dark, slick and international.

An adaptation of South African novelist Alistair Morgan’s book of the same name, Sleeper’s Wake tells the story of John – played by an unshaven and traumatised Lionel Newton – who fell asleep at the wheel and whose car careened off the road, killing his wife and daughter.

In an attempt to recover, John takes time out at an elite coastal preserve and there he meets 17-year-old Jackie, who has just survived the ordeal of a break-in turned bad.

Her mother was brutally beaten to death in front of her and Jackie was threatened with rape. Her father Roelf – played by Deon Lotz – has turned to Christ to overcome the horror of the experience and he keeps a tight rein on Jackie and her brother.

But guilt and trauma shatter the morals of Berk’s characters and Jackie, played with intuitive skill by model-turned-actress Jay Anstey, is coldly and uncomfortably drawn to sex with any man who will have her – including John, who knows he is making a stupid mistake but develops a relationship with her.

A response to the violent crime that plagues the country, Sleeper’s Wake dissects the psychology of trauma and its flowering of neediness.

It is, essentially, a desperate plea for humanity in a world turned savage.

Sweeping the audience towards an inevitable showdown between father and lover, Sleeper’s Wake is punctuated by blood and wounds, renegade security officers, uncomfortable dinner tables and rebellious children. It is a story of our time.

But it’s a story that failed to let me feel for its inhabitants and I’m struggling to understand why.

Despite the assurance of the direction, it felt, to me, more of an exercise in film excellence than character study.

Newton’s John is pitted against Lotz’s Roelf. John is weak and cagey and is easily upstaged by the exceptional theatrics of Lotz, a cruel and confused patriarch who steals the show, tipping the delicate dynamics of the story to the point of destabilising it.

Jackie, who exposes herself without care in a need to be loved, is uncomfortably objectified by the camera.

We have multiple nude close-ups of her young female body. John’s nude scenes are shot from a safe distance, entrenching the masculine point-of-view of the camera and undermining the dynamics of the sexual tug-of-war.

The film grabs an audience by the collar and leads us, without flinching, into our dark side. But I can’t shake the feeling that it does so too well.

The soundtrack, for example, is dense and relentless – forcing us to feel emotions and leaving us too little silence to brood and make connections.

Yet, there are many unexpected moments in Sleeper’s Wake that take one’s breath away. The peeling of an orange becomes an act of violence. The baring of a baboon’s teeth becomes a metaphor for human violence. A whispered apology becomes a cry for help.

What I am sure of is that Berk has offered a courageous debut feature that has clearly established himself as a filmmaker to watch.

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