Rebecca Daly’s The Other Side of Sleep comes to our cinema screens with the weight of expectation on it shoulders. Daly was the first Irish woman to be featured in the director’s fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival receiving praise from filmmakers such as Jane Campion. Some films struggle to fulfil those kinds of expectations and in Ireland particularly, it is all too easy to cut someone down to size lest they get big headed. The important question is: does The Other Side of Sleep live up to the hype?
The answer to this must be an infuriatingly fence sitting yes and no. The film stars the mesmeric Antonia Campbell-Hughes as Arlene, a factory worker in Offaly who is prone to bouts of sleepwalking at night; she has a tendency to wake up outdoors. Indeed the startling image that begins the film is of her lying beside a dead body of a woman who is wrapped in a duvet. It is a shot of stunning beauty and horror. She sleeps oblivious to the dead woman lying inches from her face. It is an intimate and invasive shot, beautifully composed and it gets to the heart of the story in a much more interesting way than simple exposition.
Daly manages to do a wonderful thing throughout this film which is to make the small town where Arlene lives a living breathing character, full of menace. The threatening drone of the machines in the factory where she works, the local forest which has that dark fairytale feel of terror, and the roadside at night, where one could easily imagine women disappearing from quite easily. Even the bedsit Arlene lives in feels like it is closing in on her. It is small and claustrophobic. The grainy long shots of Arlene walking through a deserted town almost feel like surveillance footage, adding to the feeling that there is a threatening presence watching her.
There are no real problems in the first 45 minutes or so of the film as the nightmarish feel and the film’s refusal to make what is happening clear really work well. Your expectations and your lack of knowledge as to what precisely happened keeps you on edge and it is here that the film is at it’s strongest. It is after this though that the film’s problems start to come to the fore. In its imagery and style you are reminded of better films. In terms of the body in the forest, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks comes to mind. The dread associated with the feeling of being watched recalls some of Michael Haneke’s work. The associations are against some seriously good filmmaking and The Other Side of Sleep cannot stand up against these films. The main problem is that the story is actually quite slight which means it has difficulty sustaining itself over its quite lean 93 minute running time. As the film moves on and the red herrings and revelations start to mount up, the edgy electricity of the first half of the film dissipates which drags the film into whodunit territory. This is unfortunate as it undoes a great deal of the impressive work in the earlier parts of the film.
It must be said that there is a lot to like here. Daly has a great eye for composition and there are some really terrific scenes, particularly in the first half. The cast are very good and there is a sense of authenticity throughout the film. This is actually harder to achieve than it seems but Daly makes the film feel terrifyingly real at times. It is worth catching on the big screen to get the sense of menace the film generates. I have no doubt that with a better structured script, in the future we could be talking about Daly as one of our finest filmmakers.