Once, when I was younger and much, much stupider, I walked for five miles in the middle of the night, totally unaware of what I was doing. When I woke up in the morning my bed was covered in blood; I’d later learn that during my excursion I’d fallen down a hill, rolled over a broken bottle of lager – Becks, so probably better off on the floor – and slashed my leg open before staggering home and falling asleep on the lounge floor. I hadn’t been sleepwalking, I’d been drinking wine. But thanks to that experience, and many others just like it, I think I have a decent idea of what sleepwalking is like.
It helps that I live in a decidedly working-class area, because my local streets are full of strange men and women, much like the ones Sarah Wells (Ahna O’Reilly) encounters during her night-time somnambulism. She’s recently widowed after her husband’s suicide, and has returned to her PhD studies in an attempt to establish some normality; she’s concerned, quite rightly, that her nightmares and erratic behaviour might cause some harm if they go untreated, so after a particularly troubling episode she checks herself into the university’s sleep clinic. There, she sleeps like a baby, under the watchful eye of Dr. Scott White (Richard Armitage).
I say “watchful”, but perhaps “nakedly creepy” would be a better descriptor. The good doctor takes an unusual interest in Sarah’s case, just as she begins to question her own sanity as the sleepwalking returns and the nightmares intensify. She imagines a mysterious woman who repeatedly accuses Sarah of trying to attack her. She begins to lose the ability to distinguish reality from her own imagination. She barely recognises her friend, Nicole (Emma Fitzpatrick), receives disturbing phone calls, and is increasingly baffled by aspects of her life that have seemingly changed in subtle but significant ways.
This is all in service of a weakly imitative David Lynch-style psychological drama, but screenwriter Jack Olsen has prioritised the audience’s confusion over Sarah’s. The timeline is scrambled by disorienting flashbacks wherein obscure characters occupy indeterminate locations and make very little sense. Likewise, director Elliot Lester (who made the well-received Nightingale in 2015) stages the convoluted events under dim lighting, on darkened streets, in lonely laundry rooms; the usual everyday places one might visit, but obfuscated both visually and thematically. The arty-farty explanation for this is that the writing and direction are intended to symbolise Sarah’s weakening grasp on reality. The wilful vagary is a statement on perception; how unreliably the unwell see the world, Sleepwalker says.
I call bullshit. It is bad writing and bad filmmaking hidden beneath the thin, chipped veneer of artistic statement. Sometimes, when characters explain things, such as how various conditions might cause distortions of reality, Lester frames the shot so that sunlight or lamplight is blaring behind them – how illuminating. This is the heavy-handed look-at-me stock in which Sleepwalker trades; material that is half as clever as it thinks, presented twice as cleverly as it needs to be.
O’Reilly makes an admirable attempt at conveying the inner turmoil of a character that is disoriented, but it’s hard to feel sympathy for her when her threats might be real or imagined, and the movie has little interest in clarifying which. A scruffy, bearded Haley Joel Osment gives a face to her anxieties, but his function in the narrative is never really clarified. Neither is a limp, emotionless romance between her and Dr. White, despite a game showing from Richard Armitage, who is always a pleasure to see not playing a dwarf or a cartoon character.
I can’t fault Sleepwalker’s ambition, but it’s a real mess. It fails to build a cogent narrative or compelling characters, and by trying to do too much it doesn’t really end up doing anything. It has the hazy, indistinct quality of a dream, but the kind you forget immediately after waking up. Maybe that’s for the best.
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