Director: Mike Flanagan
Writers: Mike Flanagan, Stephen King (based on the novel by)
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis, Zahn McClarnon, Emily Alyn Lind,
2019 has seen perhaps a record number of Stephen King adaptations, with the last of these being the long anticipated Doctor Sleep, the sequel to Stephen King's infamous The Shining, written in 2013. While it took 34 years for King to write his sequel, it has been closer to 40 years since Stanley Kubrick fashioned his on-screen interpretation, leaving little Danny Torrence in the midst of middle-age, struggling with both his tortured memories of the Overlook Hotel and his mysterious 'shine'. Elsewhere, other 'shiners' are introduced to us, some only just beginning to acknowledged and understand their abilities, while others are fully aware of their power and are desperate and lethally motivated to maintain it.
Before we go on, I feel I must offer some context. I approach this review versed not in the two novels written by Stephen King, but instead versed in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 classic (albeit not universally loved) adaptation The Shining, and the films of Mike Flanagan, director of many more modern horror films such as Oculus, Hush and Gerald's Game (another of King's work). Therefore, Doctor Sleep's fidelity to the work on which it is based is lost on me, and so I cannot comment on how faithfully it follows its source material.
As previously mentioned, Doctor Sleep sticks close to the hero of The Shining, Danny Torrence, played here by Ewan McGregor as a more grown-up Dan or later, 'Uncle Dan'. It is a rough and upsetting entrance for Danny, as we meet his adult self in the depths of alcoholism and violence as he wrestles with his violent and traumatic past. Truthfully, Danny Torrence is not a standout performance for McGregor, with his portrayal feeling flat throughout. To his credit, the torment his character suffers is clear, but there is little else to Danny's personality that offers room for the audience to relate or to enjoy, with McGregor largely coasting on the likability that he has accrued over the course of his career.
Rebecca Ferguson perhaps offers the film's best performance as Rose the Hat, leader of True Knot, a cult hell bent on living forever by stealing the 'steam' of those, like Danny, who shine. To say it is the best is not to say that her portrayal is fantastic, but she does a serviceable job as the charismatic but ruthlessly lethal antagonist. Young Kyliegh Curran is also very effective as the likeable and inspiringly brave Abra, a young girl learning to hone and control her own powerful shine. There are hints of inexperience in her performance, but to carry a large proportion of a widely released King adaptation alongside names such as McGregor and Ferguson is impressive and no small achievement.
Doctor Sleep's problems extend beyond the absence of first-class performances, however. The film itself largely seems to lack any discernible personality or flair, possessing instead a steady monotonous pace which does little in invite intrigue or summon enthusiasm. Even its narrative links to The Shining feel tenuous at best. Flanagan's aptitude for expressive and innovative cinematography is still present, but far less pronounced than it has been in many of his previous films, and more of this may have helped to reinvigorate a tale desperate for some vitality.
Overall the film feels, as many belated sequels often do, as more of an afterthought; a progression of a narrative that did not need progressing. This is surprising given than Doctor Sleep is not an original idea but adapted directly from a King novel. Mike Flanagan has proven in the past that he is more than capable of adapting the work of King (choosing the particularly tricky Gerald's Game to showcase that capability), and so Doctor Sleep's rather lacklustre opening two thirds is as surprising as it is discouraging.
It is only when Danny and young Abra return to the infamous Overlook Hotel that Flanagan's flair and obvious adoration of the horror genre really begins to shine through. As a tribute to The Shining of 1980, Doctor Sleep is overwhelmingly effective. Not only is the environment expertly and meticulously recreated, right down to some of Kubrick's own cinematography, but many scenes are replicated, mirrored and, on occasions, recreated. Flanagan guides us once again through the subtly sinister hotel and serves it the gravitas that it deserves. It is the final act of this film which is by far the strongest, and his attempt to capture both the aesthetic and the atmosphere of the Overlook of the eighties is commendable, and is worthy of his already stellar filmography.
Doctor Sleep's on-screen adaptation turns out to be a superb homage to its 40 year-old on-screen predecessor, but not much other than that. Lacking personality and energy in its first half, the film is lifted when we return to familiar ground, but this arrives so late and after so long that the film's main narrative cannot be saved by nostalgia alone. Fans of Stephen King's original written work may think differently, but perhaps the most you will take from Doctor Sleep is the desire to revisit The Shining.
In one line: Affection for The Shining is clear to see, but little love has been spared for Doctor Sleep in a follow-up which relies on the success of the story from which it was borne rather than striving for its own.