20 April 2015 | ian-rijsdijk
Edgy contemporary South African thriller
Adapted from the 2009 novel by Alistair Morgan, Sleeper's Wake is a beautifully shot psychological drama set predominantly in a sleepy holiday town on the south coast of KwaZulu Natal. Built around some strong central performances and featuring some powerful scenes, the film also struggles with a persistently gloomy tone: some modulations in the characters' emotional journeys would've been welcome.
John Wraith (the once again excellent Lionel Newton) is a struggling writer coming to terms with the death of his wife and daughter. After a predictable montage of post-traumatic symptoms, he is urged to pull himself together at a friends house in the jungly environs of Nature's Cove. There he meets a shifty armed response guard and the Venter family, particularly the domineering and devout father, Roelf (Deon Lotz), and his rebellious, predictably voluptuous daughter (Jackie). The Venters, it turns out, are dealing with a family trauma of their own, and the fragile John is drawn into the vortex of Roelf's battle with Jackie. Denial, aggression, despair push the free-spirited, volatile Jackie towards the disbelieving John (much older, not necessarily wiser, and alcoholic) and it is only a matter of time before the two traumatised fathers clash.
The highlight of the film is the combination of Flo Ballack's production design and Willie Nel's cinematography. Sleeper's Wake really is a beautiful film, the heavily forested setting at once fantastical and ominous. Even the sea is framed as a surfer's heaven and yet is terrifying in one scene as a wave builds dramatically before John dives beneath it. Both Newton and Lotz are excellent, though I miss the insouciant slyness that Newton has brought to other performances (see for example, Jump the Gun). Jay Anstey is good as the hot/cold dynamo, Jackie, though - as with all the performances - a little levity and surprise would thicken the characters. Though the Rockwellian storekeepers come close to providing some humorous relief, what is missing throughout are moments of surprise.
The film's climax will either sell you on the film or disappoint you. I really liked it. It focuses Afrikaans author Eugene Marais's meditations on baboons through a contemporary lens and provides the necessary eruption of tension that the narrative promises all along.
The lack of tonal variation aside, Sleeper's Wake is a strong film and an assured feature debut for director Barry Berk after his extensive work in South African television. It is also pleasing to see the richness of the country's literary production being adapted by South African filmmakers into compelling local productions.