Alistair Morgan's novel "Sleeper's Wake" won critical praise for its spare, artful prose, but there's little that's spare or artful about Barry Berk's film version, which treats the somewhat out-there plot with heavyhanded literal-mindedness.

Alistair Morgan’s novel “Sleeper’s Wake” won critical praise for its spare, artful prose, but there’s little that’s spare or artful about Barry Berk’s film version, which treats the somewhat out-there plot with heavyhanded literal-mindedness. Result is a lurid potboiler that grows increasingly ludicrous until there’s nothing left but to throw in the kitchen sink — or in this case, a baboon attack. Hyperbolic tale of a grieving widower’s most unrestful retreat to a South African nature preserve will be lucky to score offshore tube and VOD sales.

Devastated after surviving a car crash that killed his wife and daughter, ominously named writer John Wraith (Lionel Newton) sinks into alcoholic depression. He accepts his sister’s offer to spend some time at her rustic second home in a national forest. But any hope for healing tranquility there is immediately disturbed by the intrusions of teenage Jackie (Jay Anstey, an even sulkier Kristen Stewart lookalike), a schizoid Lolita who’s by turns vulnerable, insulting and brazenly sexual toward the newcomer three times her age. Equally troublesome is her father, Roelf (Deon Lotz), a religious zealot who, like John, has lost a spouse and child, but has rather pushy notions about proper grief sharing.

There follow many portentously meaningful looks, threatened and actual violence, the disappearance of Jackie’s brother (Luke Tyler), heavy-breathing sex, shocking revelations, the inevitable introduction of a gun, and “This place bad juju”-type vibes from the requisite “native” housekeeper (Bayo Jwayi) before the baboon finally hits the fan.

While all this may well have seemed effectively mysterious and metaphorical in literary form, the pic’s humorlessly depicted pileup of incidents grows ever more pretentious and silly. Thesps do what they can; packaging is solid enough, the highlight by far being Willie Nel’s lensing of lush, spectacular scenery.

Sleeper's Wake

South Africa

Production

A Ken Kaplan and Anant Singh presentation in association with Bioskope Pictures, Liquid Cryaon and Videovision Entertainment. (International sales: Bioskope, Johannesburg.) Produced by Kaplan. Executive producers, Ronnie Apteker, Barry Berk, Richard Cohen, Robert Maidoo, Sudhir Pragjee, Singh. Directed, written by Barry Berk, based on the novel by Alistair Morgan.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Willie Nel; editor, Vuyani Sondlo; music, Daniel Caleb, Jamie Mathes; production designer, Flo Ballack; sound (Dolby Digital), Gita Cerviera; casting, Moonyeenn Lee. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 6, 2012. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Lionel Newton, Jay Anstey, Deon Lotz, Amanda Lane, Bayo Jwayi, Stiaan Smith, Luke Tyler. (English, Afrikaans dialogue)

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