Reviews Wrap

Here’s a quick taste of reviews of current release Australian feature films Blame and Sleeping Beauty. Please note these do not reflect the views of the AFI. We’re aiming to represent opinions and views from various sources, and you’ll make up your own mind, of course!

Blame

Blame Key Art AustraliaReleased nationally in Australia on 16 June by Pack Screen, Blame premiered at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival (where it was a MIFF Premiere Fund film) and screened to some acclaim at festivals including Toronto and Chicago. Filmed and set in the foothills of Perth, the story centres on a group of young vigilantes intent on wreaking vengeance for a sexual betrayal.

Directed by Michael Henry, and produced by Ryan Hodgson, Melissa Kelly and Michael Robinson, Blame stars a raft of fresh but familiar talent, including Sophie Lowe, Kestie Morassi, Damian de Montemas, Simon Stone, Mark Leonard Winter and Ashley Zukerman. Reviewing the film as part of the TIFF 2010 lineup, Twitch’s Todd Brown was particularly impressed by the actors, and by the opening sequences, but writes that the film is “[l]ong on cast and concept but slightly short on execution,” and that it “never quite manages to reach its full potential or really cash in on its premise”.  

Megan Lehmann, writing for The Hollywood Reporter (login required), calls Blame “a compact little thriller set in a remote corner of the Australian bushland,” and predicts that it will be a good calling card for its cast and crew. She singles out the stark piano-heavy score and DOP Torstein Dyrting’s lingering camera-work for special mention, with the only real criticism being a “generally tight script  [that] stumbles in the second act as the characters chase their tails for a while.”

Simon Miraudo, over at Quickflix sees in the film “brief flashes of brilliance that evoke Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie,” though ultimately, he argues, “it feels like a sincere tribute to Hitchcock and Christie, but not a modern-day companion piece.” Miraudo singles outs out performances by Damian de Montemas, Sophie Lowe and Kestie Morassi for special mention. Also seeing Hitchockian references in Blame, Peter Galvin (SBS Film) commends the way the audience’s sympathies are simultaneously engaged by both the victim and the perpetrators.

Leigh Paatsch, reviewing for the Herald Sun gives Blame three stars and writes that “[f]irst-time writer-director Michael Henry makes a little go a long way throughout, pushing an impressive young cast through a twisty, turny maze most viewers will be happy to get lost in.” Both David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz from the ABC’s At The Movies are similarly impressed with the film, agreeing with a three and a half star rating, and praising it as an intelligent low budget film that “punches above it’s weight.” 

Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty key art AustraliaSleeping Beauty, an ‘erotic fairytale’ about a young woman, Lucy (Emily Browning), who sells her body in a particularly passive way, is shaping up to be one of those films that is dividing critics and audiences. This divisive tendency was evident at the film’s premiere screening in Official Competition at Cannes 2011 (you can see a table summarising critical responses from French critics at Cannes here), and the vigorous debates here at home continue the tendency. In fact, as Glenn Dunks argues, writing for Onya Magazine, perhaps “the discussion it has elicited from critics and audiences (domestic and international alike) is reason enough for [the film’s] existence.”

One of the most interesting and lateral responses to Sleeping Beauty is this one by Matt Riviera on his blog A Life in Film, where he engages not only with the film but with its critical and audience responses. (Riviera has meticulously compiled a table of Sydney critics’ responses to 2011 Sydney Film Festival offerings, including Sleeping Beauty, and you can see that film’s divisive effect evident in the chart here.)  

Anticipating that many viewers will be alienated and unmoved by the somewhat clinical tone of the film, Riviera notes that “[w]e are not encouraged to relate as much as to reflect on our position as voyeurs. In other words, we can look but cannot touch.” He goes on to offer a fascinating and unexpected reading of  the film as a metaphor for Australia’s passive relationship to its own beauty and international exploitation.

Over at Cinema Autopsy, Thomas Caldwell gives a more conventional review. Awarding Sleeping Beauty four stars, Caldwell admires writer/director Julia Leigh’s “well tuned sense of visual storytelling” and notes that the film’s cinematography (Geoffrey Simpson) and production design (Annie Beauchamp) evoke the work of Kubrick, Lynch and Greenaway. Caldwell also praises the “meticulous and minimalist sound design by Sam Petty”, and the “highly measured and controlled performance” of Emily Browning in the lead role.  Anticipating other viewers’ criticism of the film, he writes that “[o]n face value Sleeping Beauty may appear to be simply an arty exercise in film style and as a result will no doubt perplex and frustrate some audiences, particularly those expecting something more erotic or blatantly emotionally charged. However, like Lucy it contains something dark, complex, mysterious and, indeed, beautiful deep down below the surface.”

David Stratton, reviewing for At The Movies, called Sleeping Beauty “a handsomely made and quite haunting first feature” and gave the film three and a half stars. Stratton argued, however, that “while it’s often very impressive it’s also very cold and detached.” Andrew L. Urban is another such viewer, frustrated at what he perceives as the film’s coldness. At Urban Cinefile he writes: “I salute the unique vision, but I feel cheated that I felt so little emotion in a film that has such vast emotional potential.” Writing in the same space, Louise Keller declares Sleeping Beauty “a mesmerizing film and a stunning debut for Leigh, although the ending disappoints and leaves us adrift.”

Jim Schembri, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald gives the film backhanded praise, arguing that “the one thing you can’t say about Sleeping Beauty that you can about many other Australian arthouse films, is that it is boring. If anything, there’s something mesmerising about Lucy’s journey and in Browning’s deliberately passive, low-key performance, even if the whole shebang leads to frustration.” Leigh Paatsch, in the Herald Sun is not so kind, describing it as “prentious” and an “arthouse snoozer”. Variety’s Peter Debruge is similiarly unimpressed, criticising the film’s “frustratingly elliptical feel and lack of character insight.”

Over at the Guardian however, Peter Bradshaw seems to gain far greater insight into the “emotional seriousness” of Lucy’s character, praising Emily Browning’s “fierce and powerful performance.” Bradshaw also calls the film a “technically elegant” and “assured debut”, nevertheless finding it to be “no more than the sum of its parts”.

Clearly, the debate will continue to rage. What did you think?

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A Sense of Wonder: Julia Leigh talks about Sleeping Beauty

I’m interested in Wonder Cinema. I wanted to make a film where the audience responds with ‘Did I really see that?’ and ‘Did I really hear that?’ and ‘Can such a thing really exist?’. Holding the breath. Eyes wide. A response of intense wonder rather than shock. Cinema as wunderkammer, wonder-room. – Julia Leigh in her Director’s Notes for Sleeping Beauty.

Julia Leigh, writer/director of Sleeping Beauty

Julia Leigh, writer/director of Sleeping Beauty

Who is Julia Leigh? There’s a whole lot of curiosity about this first time Australian director whose debut feature film, Sleeping Beauty, made it into Official Competition at Cannes this year. Add to this the fact that Jane Campion, the Cannes-annointed elder stateswoman of auteur cinema, has supported Sleeping Beauty, adding her ‘Jane Campion presents’ imprimateur to the title. Oh, and then there’s the nudity – lots of it – and the film’s tagline: ‘an erotic fairytale’.

Starring the luminous Emily Browning, Sleeping Beauty tells the story of a young woman who is drawn into a particular kind of prostitution, requiring her to be drugged, unconscious and unclothed in a chamber where she’s visited by elderly admirers. It’s creepy and intriguing; brave and stylish. So who is the writer and director from whose mind this strange story sprang?

Julia Leigh was 29 when her first novel, The Hunter, was published in 1999 to international acclaim, including being named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her novella Disquiet (2008) won the UK Encore Award and was an LA Times Favourite Book. Then, in 2008 the script for Sleeping Beauty was named on the Hollywood Black List – an annual list of Hollywood’s most liked unproduced screenplays.

Sleeping Beauty key art Australia

So how does a successful novelist turn into a screenwriter and then a director? The answer perhaps lies in the fact that Leigh is uncoventional in a multitude of ways. A qualified lawyer who has never practised, she holds a PhD in English from the University of Adelaide. She’s studied and taught abroad (including a stint as Adjunct Associate Professor at Barnard College, Columbia University). Now 41, Julia Leigh would love to make more films, as well as write more books. But it’s clear she’s an artist working to her own timetable – and one who is choosy about answering questions that attempt to explain her work. As she writes in her Director’s Notes, “It is dangerous for me to explain the meaning of my work. Like gouging out my own eye. Like pinning down the viewer and gouging out their eye.”

Here we chat to Leigh about the move from solitary novel-writing to colloborative filmmaking; about working with her editor Nick Meyers, and the fruitful collaboration with production designer Annie Beauchamp. Leigh also talks about the importance of beauty and of living in the creative “risk zone”.

AFI: Filmmaking is such a collaborative endeavour. Was that something you enjoyed, a change from the more solitary nature of writing a novel or a novella?

Julia Leigh: It’s very interesting shifting between the two, but novelists and filmmakers both need to have something they want to explore. That is the most important thing. They both create complex characters and full detailed worlds, and they both work with the flow of time. In  a way the perceived loneliness of the writer is not so dissimilar, actually, to the situation of the director, because I do feel the director is the only one who holds the whole film in her head. I really did enjoy the collaborative process, however, and the strong relationships you have with the actors, and the heads of department, and the people on set. They’re actually still quite close one-on-one relationships rather than this big group of people that you’re talking to.

Sleeping Beauty 1

Eden Falk, Emily Browning & Rachael Blake in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

AFI: One of the closest and most intense relationships would have to be between the director and the editor, who both shape and create the story together in the cutting room. Can you tell us a bit about how this worked with your editor Nick Meyers?

Julia Leigh: Oh, I had a great editor! I was just so lucky to work with Nick Meyers [whose other credits include The Bank, Balibo, The Boys and Mrs Carey’s Concert]. I hadn’t met him before. I gave him the script to read and we met for a coffee. You know, in those initial meetings with people, for all my head of departments, I tried to gauge how people responded to the script and if the project resonated with them truly.

Jamie Timony and Emily Browning in the lab in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

Jamie Timony and Emily Browning in the lab in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

There is this strange thing, it’s very hard to talk about expressedly, but you know, it’s a person’s energy or vibe and how that comes across when you’re meeting them. So yes, so Nick came on board and one of his roles during the shoot of course was to look at the footage as it comes in each day. We watched the rushes and he spotted what we call pickups. You know, he said: “You might need to go back and shoot this exterior.” And we did, and it’s in the film, so you know, that was one of his jobs there. We didn’t actually have a budget to do an extra day of pickups. So we had to jam them into the existing schedule, so that was pretty tough.

AFI: What was the shooting schedule?

Julia Leigh: We had a 29-day shoot.

AFI: And what was the budget?

Julia Leigh: Ah… I’m not at liberty to discuss the budget. I think that’s something people don’t talk about, you know. It’s just so low-budget or whatever… Yes, so Nick and I went into the edit room for the process of the edit and you know, it’s very strange, it’s a very close working relationship. When you see the film you see we have an unusual shooting style. Scenes are sort of covered in one long shot, which might seem that there were very few editorial choices. Often a film is made where shoot a lot of coverage, which means you shoot that scene in wide and then you go in and you shoot one of the actors all in close-up, and you cover the scene from lots of different angles. Then in the edit you piece it all together and pick and choose from performances and decide where you want to focus on, all those sort of things. But in this case, we actually did not shoot traditional coverage and some people may think that that means there was not a lot of work to do in the edit. But in fact there was and we selected our performances very carefully.

An initiation - Emily Browning and Rachael Blake in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

An initiation - Emily Browning and Rachael Blake in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

AFI: It sounds like having such an experienced editor working on the shoot really helped to keep it within budget.

Julia Leigh: Yes, Nick also had some great suggestions for some sort of secret tricks that we used, that I cannot reveal, that made the film viable. It was a very short script actually, an unusually short script for a feature film. It was something like 67, 68 pages. And I thought that every single scene would be completely essential in such a short script. But in fact, in the edit, we did drop some scenes. So Nick was very helpful in working out what to let go. And in the edit, it’s very, very fine choices that you’re making. You’re working with the flow of the film.

AFI: How important was it for you to be making something that was beautiful to look at?

Julia Leigh: There’s no harm in beauty! [laughs] I really admire women’s beauty, you know. And I love male beauty too… And yes, this film is quite beautiful and I think that marries with the subject matter of the film, so it’s appropriate.

The Sleeping Beauty Chamber

The Sleeping Beauty Chamber

AFI: The film is very beautiful and stylish from a production design point of view too. Can you talk about that?

Julia Leigh: I loved working with our production designer Annie Beauchamp [whose other credits as art director and production designer include Moulin Rouge, Praise and Disgrace].  She was one of my first collaborators to come on board and she just did an amazing job, especially considering our small budget. We went out on location shoots together really early in the process, and pooled images and defined our colour pallette. I really enjoyed that part of things, and I think the look we got was quite amazing.

AFI: There has been some talk about it being difficult to get the film funded and supported officially because of the explicit nature of the material. Was that the case?

Julia Leigh: Look, as far as the funding goes, we got government funding from Screen Australia and Screen NSW. And I do really want to pay tribute to those brave people within those organisations who fought to support the film. I have no idea exactly what went on behind closed doors. But all I know is that it’s a very competitive environment and any film that gets up has to have its internal champions.

Rachael Blake and Peter Carroll negotiate the deal over the sleeping beauty.

Rachael Blake and Peter Carroll negotiate the deal over the sleeping beauty.

AFI: And do you think the film will shock or offend viewers potentially?

Julia Leigh: I don’t really want to address that in this interview. You know, I hope people watch the film with a sense of wonder and I hope the film allows them to use their imaginations.

AFI: You’ve said in the press notes that you’re comfortable ‘being in the risk zone’.

Julia Leigh: Yeah, I’m very comfortable in the risk zone. In fact I like to be in the risk zone. I think in fact with all good projects, you are in the risk zone. If you’re not in the risk zone, there’s probably a problem.

Emily Browning and Ewen Leslie in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

Emily Browning and Ewen Leslie - lonely friends in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

AFI: Did you always imagine that you would be a writer when you were a little girl?

Julia Leigh: I have always been somebody who has been formed by literature. I mean, I was a big reader. Yeah, I think a reading life is part of the writing life. And actually, this thing about this shift from literature to film, it all comes from the one place, which is your sensibility. And your sensibility is formed by so many different things. So I do resist this habit of typecasting people into one medium or another.

AFI: And yet it is quite unusual for a novelist to turn director.

Julia Leigh: That’s true. Actually, there probably aren’t many novelist-filmmakers. I can’t think of any.

AFI: Can you tell us about your involvement with the film adaptation of your novel The Hunter, releasing later this year?

Julia Leigh: Yes, it’s directed by my friend Daniel Nettheim, he’s a director. And I opted not to read the screenplay and I opted not to go to the screening room of the early cuts of the film because I’m waiting for the glorious day when I can just sit down in a cinema with an audience and see it myself as a very surreal personal experience, which will be a great day I think. That film is also coming out later this year. But I did go down and I visited the set in Tasmania and that was wonderful.

AFI: How did Daniel come on board with the project?

Julia Leigh: Dan is actually a really close friend of mine. We edited the student newspaper together in 1989, Honi Soit. There was a close little group of us and that was a great early collaborative experience.

AFI: It’s often mentioned that your script for Sleeping Beauty made the Hollywood Black List. How does that actually happen?

Julia Leigh: I have an agent in America at UTA, Bec Smith, and that’s how that happens.

AFI: That must have been very helpful in getting the film up?

Julia Leigh: I think it was an element. It’s very hard to get a film up, there’s so many important elements and that was probably one of them.

AFI: Best wishes with the film’s release, and thank you for talking with us.

Julia Leigh: Thank you.

Sleeping Beauty is in national release from 23 June, 2011.

To see an interview with Julia Leigh, conducted at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and filmed by Screen Australia, click below.

Production Notes

Sleeping Beauty is written and directed by Julia Leigh, produced by Jessica Brentnall and executive produced by Tim White, Alan Cardy and Jamie Hilton. Distributed by Transmission Films (Aust/NZ). Filmed in Sydney, 2011. Shot in 35mm. 101 min.

Director of Photography: Geoffrey Simpson ACS
Production Designer: Annie Beauchamp
Editor: Nick Meyers ASE
Costume Designer: Shareen Beringer
Composer: Ben Frost
Casting Director: Nikki Barrett
Sound Designer: Sam Petty
Associate Producer: Sasha Burrows