"Sleeping Beauty," from first-time writer-director Julia Leigh, an accomplished novelist, promptly establishes a dark and ominous in short order, but then limps forward toward an anticlimactic ending that fails to answer or even ask any deeper questions.
Emily Browning stars as Lucy, a college students hustling to make ends meet any way she can—short of actually working. She turns tricks, subjects herself to medical testing, and gets behind on her rent. She soon finds a job working at a dinner club where she must pour drinks while wearing only lingerie.
Lucy's boss, Clara, is so taken with her beauty and performance that she offers her a chance to be a "sleeping beauty," a job that entails letting man curl up beside her drugged out and naked for the night, with one very strict rule—no penetration. Sounds like an easy gig, right?
Browning gives a strong, assured performance as Lucy, imbuing her with a sense of mystery and boredom. It's a tough role, with limited dialogue, and a character who seems to habitually degrade herself for no apparent reason. And that's the film's primary failure, as Lucy inspires neither sympathy nor pity—she's effectively chosen sex work over office work, so she's made her own bed, if you will.
Rachel Blake is even better as Clara, the Madame for whom Lucy works. Perfectly coiffed and composed, she is all business, with a chilling delivery that makes her praise feel conditional and her warnings—"I am obliged to tell you there are heavy penalties -- very heavy penalties -- for any breaches of discretion"— downright terrifying.
Leigh has a nice perspective, with an incredibly strong eye for detail. Each moment looks like a carefully staged photo. But as pretty as her pictures are, they don't move. Everything in this film—the look, the pace, the action--is just a little too languid.
Leigh does do a commendable job of showing Browning in varying stages of undress in a way that is devoid of eroticism. Zack Snyder claims he was railing against objectification when his camera drooled all over Browning in "Sucker Punch," but Leigh shows him how it's done. Browning is far more exposed, both physically and emotionally, in "Sleeping Beauty," but there is not a moment's titillation. Leigh portrays sex work as being even colder and more commercial than the medical testing Lucy undergoes.
Ultimately, however, "Sleeping Beauty" is just that—something nice to look at that just sort of lays there, only barely holding your attention.
"Sleeping Beauty" opens in limited release this Friday