Doctor Sleep review: “What the film really has going for it is Ewan McGregor”

Ewan McGregor in Doctor Sleep
Ewan McGregor in Doctor Sleep
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Doctor Sleep (15) ***

Directed by: Mike Flanagan

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Cliff Curtis, Kyliegh Curran

Stephen King famously hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his 1977 novel The Shining. In adapting King’s belated sequel, Doctor Sleep, however, writer/director Mike Flanagan has to reckon with the fact that the movie’s iconography and pop-culture reach has superseded the novel entirely. His imperfect solution is to attempt a sustained version of what Steven Spielberg pulled off so effortlessly in the best sequence of last year’s Ready Player One: a cinematic immersion in the world of Kubrick’s movie that might allow us to buy into the story being told.

If the illusion isn’t entirely successful (this film’s faux Jack Nicholson is particularly jarring), it feels less like an act of artistic vandalism than a sincere attempt to honour both Kubrick and King, albeit with the scales tipped in favour of the latter.

Picking up the story of the psychically troubled Danny Torrance almost 30 years on, what the film really has going for it is Ewan McGregor. Now a recovering alcoholic trying to come to terms with the fact he drank to understand his father’s rage, Danny is a haunted man and McGregor’s quiet, understated performance captures the ever-present desperation and shame of an addict who’s done some terrible things of his own over the years. That helps ground the film as Danny is drawn back into the spectral world of his own traumatic childhood by a young girl (Kyliegh Curran) whose gifts have made her the target of a band of outlaws who literally feed off fear. Led by Rebecca Ferguson’s Rose the Hat (she wears a top hat), this group is like a supernatural version of the Manson family, sustaining themselves through the ages by preying on children, something Flanagan uses as the basis for the film’s most upsetting scene.

The film has to do a lot of world-building to get all this going (it’s longer even than Kubrick’s uncut edition of The Shining), but Flanagan — who scored a hit last year with his Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House — is actually better at prolonged atmospherics than delivering jolts, so while the film is never scary, it is unsettling. Of course all roads lead back to The Overlook Hotel; it’s just a shame that what unfurls isn’t tense enough, perverse enough or mysterious enough to transcend its fan servicing tendencies. Alistair Harkness