Review of Doctor Sleep by Nebal Shafi
It’s not news to suggest that Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece The Shining (1980) does a questionable job adapting Stephen King‘s equally brilliant novel (1977) to the screen. King is famously on record as not being a fan due to the filmmaker’s numerous changes to its story and characters, and when he released his 2013 sequel novel it was clear he was ignoring those changes completely. Pity writer/director Mike Flanagan then for wanting to tackle an adaptation of the sequel by somehow acknowledging elements from both King’s original novel and Kubrick’s film. That he succeeds in this precarious balance is no small success, but more than that, Doctor Sleep is a thrilling, surprising, beautifully affecting look backwards at grief and forwards toward healing.
Stephen King first published Doctor Sleep back in 2013, and for the past six years, it has had the appearance of a booby trap for filmmakers. After all, the time is not just a sequel to The Shining – a.k.a. a follow-up to one of the most influential and beloved horror stories of the 20th century. Reading the novel, you get the sense that certain choices were made by the author specifically to spite the Kubrick feature and the changes that were made bringing the 1977 book to the big screen. Thus, the idea of making a Doctor Sleep movie has long had a certain “damned if you do, damned if you don't” the quality about it. Anyone put in charge of the project would be a slave to two contrary masters: the amount of love that exists for Kubrick’s film among audiences would demand any big-screen sequel adaptation have fidelity to the (genius) prior cinematic vision, but still while there would also be the constant pressure to flip a notorious legacy and create something that would earn King’s approval. On paper, it seems like both an impossible and thankless endeavor for any normal filmmaker.
Danny Torrance was just a boy when he escaped his homicidal father and the haunted halls of The Overlook Hotel with his mother and a handful of ghosts in tow, but years later he’s a broken man. Like his old man before him, Dan (Ewan McGregor) is an alcoholic prone to bouts of aggression, but he works his way towards a peace of sorts when he settles in a small New England town and makes a friend (Cliff Curtis) who introduces him to AA. He settles into a calmer life as a hospice orderly, and while he keeps his “shine” — his psychic abilities — in check he uses it to help the dying pass peacefully into death. He’s not alone in his abilities, though, as elsewhere a young girl named Abra (Kyleigh Curran) is coming into her own and crossing psychic paths with a roving band of human monsters who feed off those with the shine and are led by the cruel but fashionable Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). The same abilities that connect them all might just be destined to destroy them too.
What in turn, makes Doctor Sleep such a bold endeavor, however, is that it’s also purely a Mike Flanagan film. This is a director with the confidence needed to know that it is not his job to ape the next-level cinematography employed by Stanley Kubrick, or lift every line of dialogue from Stephen King’s book. The reality is that this is a story that fits directly in his wheelhouse, having frequently demonstrated a gift for crafting a perfect balance between the fantastical and realistic, psychology-driven drama and he expresses it here.
Truly the performance that everyone will be talking about walking away from Doctor Sleep, however, is Rebecca Ferguson as Rose The Hat – now all set to be remembered as one of the all-time great cinematic Stephen King villains right alongside the likes of Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance, Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes, Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise The Clown, and Clancy Brown's Captain Hadley. Simultaneously she manages to be both seductively mesmerizing, and viciously sadistic, and it makes every moment she is on-screen utterly captivating. By the end, you loathe her, and absolutely love her, which is really everything you could ask for from the character.
Doctor Sleep is a fantastically entertaining film that does a fine job adapting King’s novel and acknowledging both iterations of The Shining (along with some sneaky nods towards King’s Dark Tower universe) while still delivering an experience all its own. It argues that while some are capable of overcoming their traumas others might not be so lucky. Our odds increase, though, when we’re no longer alone in fighting those battles. For some the welcoming circle of an AA meeting is enough, for others, it takes a friendship built on a psychic connection, but the bottom line remains the same — communication and kindness towards those around us. The alternative is far, far too frightening to even consider.