From the moment we glimpse the scar across the face of John Wraith (Lionel Newton), the stitches bristling like ferocious insects, we’re pulled into the drama of Sleeper’s Wake.
Based on the 2009 debut novel by local author Alistair Morgan, directed by Barry Berk, I’m happy to say the film stays largely true to the events of that fiction. The read was harrowing, slowly building up to an astonishing climax, and the film provides the visual background and completes the experience.
The storyline is deceptively simple: John wakes up in hospital, scarred, disoriented – flash to him arriving at Nature’s Cove, a rundown resort in KwaZulu-Natal, trying to recuperate, get his bearings, make sense of his grief.
We learn that he survived the accident in which his wife and daughter were killed, and he’s come to this spot, seemingly isolated and out of season, in an attempt to grapple with the events and heal.
While there, however, he becomes embroiled in the lives of the Venters. The father, Roelf, is played by Deon Lotz. He’s at the resort with his teen children, Jackie (Jay Anstey) and Simon (Luke Tyler). John encounters the 17-year-old Jackie weeping and tries to determine what is wrong.
She’s more than contemptuous of the older man – but when Roelf visits John in his chalet, he soon discovers why. The children’s mother has been killed in a robbery.
Roelf says how strange it is that they are both grieving and have met in this place. John seems less inclined to agree or to explain why he is there.
The film is punctuated by silences and pauses, glances and observations, clearly demonstrated in this pivotal first scene between the two men.
I saw Lotz in the brilliant Skoonheid, and here he excels again, imbuing the role of Roelf with an understated power. This is a man struggling to be strong, who clutches at his faith, and yet, ultimately, is as damaged as the others.
Vacillating between hostility to overt sexuality, Jackie enters John’s life with a hurricane strength he is unable to deter. The sense of doom is palpable. Events will take their course, we feel, as each character gropes towards a flawed kind of healing.
The mood of the story is undercut by this impending doom. The sexual energy runs like an electric volt between the teen and 40-something John, threatening to burn them both, wreathed in the very real cigarette smoke from both characters.
There’s danger here – smoking’s bad for you, John tells Jackie. She replies that she likes things that are bad for her, and the scene is set.
The KZN coast is portrayed in all its beauty – forest glades, a vista of the mountains, a calm lagoon to offset the tension of the characters and the quiet air of desperation that runs like a fault line through the story.
Contrast this with the upmarket holiday home of the Venters. And yet, there is no saving any of them – each will have to find a way through the impasse of grief.
The story is deceptively simple, as I said, but it’s layered and we’re gripped throughout. There will be drama beyond the telling of it, and when the final scene arrives we can only hope there is redemption of a sort in the violence that occurs.
Sleeper’s Wake belongs to Jackie, John and the powerful Roelf, but there are side characters who add to the menace.
Dirk (played by Stiaan Smith) is a security officer with the local armed response company, and serves both to welcome John to Nature’s Cove as well as to warn him about the baboons.
He’s also in love with Jackie, and this lends its own complication to the fraught story.
The introduction of Doreen (Bayo Jwayi), the domestic worker at the Venters, who also comes seeking work at John’s, is a curious addition.
Early on, the violence that will erupt is prefigured by the blood that pours from her hand after John tries to dissuade her from washing his dishes.
Both observer and watched as well as dispossessed, Doreen will be the moral compass that John seems to have temporarily abandoned.
This isn’t an easy or a comfortable watch, but it is a tale full of power and one that reverberates after the initial viewing.
The performances by Lotz, Astey and Newton are quite astonishing and serve to thread this film together with an intensity that keeps you hooked.
The sleeper theory refers to a series of psychological experiments which showed that people have a capacity for cruelty when disassociated from reality.
All are flawed in this story – damaged by trauma and seemingly unable to awake from the crises in their psyches. It may be a hard watch, but it’s not one you can walk away from easily.