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Sleeping With the Enemy

Year: 1991
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Joseph Ruben
Writer: Ronald Bass
Cast: Julia Roberts, Patrick Bergin, Kevin Anderson

This is one of those movies whose existence and reach over pop culture I was very aware of at the time but managed to somehow miss when it came out, watching it decades later not really because of a desire to see the movie itself but to understand the impact it's had.

And owing to the age of it (28 years old as I write this), I expected something really quite hammy and overplayed. Little did I know that the reputation it has might be because it's actually one of the most nuanced, well staged and well acted thrillers you've seen in ages, let alone one from back before the cinema verite styles of the digital age and even though the trailer makes it look like a trashy, melodramatic potboiler.

After the gigantic splash she'd made in Pretty Woman and all the stories about diva behaviour on the set of Hook and her paparazzi-dogged romance with Kiefer Sutherland, it's easy to forget that behind all the gossip rag interest and stardom, Roberts was a really good actor. The way she conveys her inner feelings so clearly to the audience but not to her abusive husband Martin (Patrick Bergin) using only a furrowed brow or the small fracturing of a smile is the work of a true talent.

When we meet Laura (Roberts) and Martin their life seems perfect. They live in a white-washed house with floor to ceiling windows giving them views of the ocean right at their fence line. Martin's living in finance seems to make them very wealthy, they attend well-to-do local parties and social events and Laura seems to want for nothing.

But if you had no idea of the premise (almost impossible after all the attention the movie got at the time) the only inkling you'd have that there was something wrong would be a barely perceptible undercurrent of tension. Martin likes everything in his life including his beautiful wife just so, and when Laura straightens hand towels in the bathroom so they all drape to the same position, it's with a kind of mild panic.

Something in the house isn't right, and when a neighbour comments to Martin while they're talking on the dock what a beautiful house he and Laura have and Martin later asks her when the guy saw their house, her face suddenly falls, knowing she's in trouble. Martin explodes, slapping her across the face hard enough to knock her down, kicking her violently in the stomach and storming out of the house.

Laura tries to pick herself up off the floor and put herself right, smiling gingerly when Martin returns home, apologises and professes his love, and she tries to grin and bear it when he lays her over one of the pristine surfaces in the house and forces himself on her to the strains of a very creepy piece of orchestral music he apparently likes to have sex to.

He also insists they go sailing with the neighbour despite Laura's fear of the water (it isn't just violence – he dictates every aspect of her life), and when a storm blows up on the return journey, Laura sees her chance. To us and Martin, she's fallen overboard and drowned while the two men have been trying to trim the sails, but we discover soon after that she's learnt to swim in secret, trying to engineer her chance to escape Martin's reign of terror.

While he was distracted trying to keep the stricken boat above water, Laura has simply gone overboard and swam back through the storm to shore, cutting and colouring her hair, flushing her wedding ring, desperately stuffing some clothes in a bag, jumping on a bus and fleeing across the country through the night. A distraught Martin buries his wife and Laura's plan seems complete.

Months later, an inconsequential plot turn raises Martin's suspicions when an acquaintance calls to express her sympathies and mentions the swimming lessons. Meanwhile Laura – now calling herself Sarah – tries to get on with her new life, settling in a new house in a small town, trying to resist the good natured romantic attentions of her neighbour Ben (Kevin Anderson, sporting the 80s-est mullet you've ever seen and the sole visual hallmark of the era) and enjoying a job the likes of which Martin forbade her from having.

But while she does so, Martin becomes convinced Laura's alive, using shady private eyes, deduction and moustache-twirling dastardliness to try and track her down. Her blind and enfeebled mother is among the foils he uses to find Laura, and when she visits her mother one day in her care facility in disguise, there's a heart in your throat moment when she and Martin almost come directly face to face, Laura with no idea he's even onto her, let alone in the same building.

It all culminates in a very famous climax in Laura's cute cottage, one you've probably heard about and know some of the beats of even if you haven't seen the movie – just like you know what 'nobody puts Baby in a corner' means even if you've never seen Dirty Dancing.

At first it doesn't seem like Bergin has much to do, but after the fact you realise he's been so effortlessly snivelling and scary he's either pulling a deeply hidden acting trick or the script is that good with his character (probably both).

But the real star is Roberts. Firmly amid the #MeToo and Strong Female Character movements as we are in early 2019, a character like her might never have flown nowadays – of course her ultimate act is one of powerful vengeance, but it's just a script device for Martin to get his comeuppance. She never plays a superhero, just a scared woman who's resourceful enough to make her escape from an abusive husband but to whom the script isn't afraid to ascribe a realistic sense of PTSD all the way through.

When she makes her way through the house on the fateful final night, wondering if her mind is playing tricks on her when she finds towels straightened up that she's mussed up on purpose, etc, it's palpably tense thanks to the way Roberts plays it. When she opens the cupboard to boxes and packages she's previously knocked over and moved around to find them in perfect symmetry and she bursts into quiet tears of terror, you'll want to do the same. But even throughout the rest of the movie you can see what made the world fall in love with her in the early 90s. Her relationship with and response to Ben is as naturalistic as it is honest.

All of which makes director Joseph Ruben (who did something similarly good in the genre with Macauley Culkin in The Good Son a few years later) the last usung star. His blocking and staging aren't flashy and don't do anything other than show the action throughout, but there are some shots that really heighten the impact. When the camera's concentrating on Laura's terrified face and it slowly pans to one side to show an out-of-focus Martin approaching down the dark hallway towards her it's as effective as the most inventive jump scare in a horror movie.

If you've similarly ignored it for decades thanks to Roberts' persona at the time or the melodramatic premise like I did, do yourself a favour. It's not just a good story well told, it's a rare example of great filmmaking from an era and a genre not really known for it.

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