Laura (Julia Roberts) is trapped in a nightmare marriage to Martin Burney (Patrick Bergin). On the outside, Martin seems like an attentive husband but in reality, he is a psychotic control freak who demands blind obedience and when he isn’t raping her to the strains of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, terrorizes her every move. One evening, a neighbour persuades Martin to come sailing and bring Laura along, even though she cannot swim and is terrified of the ocean. A storm lashes their boat, casting Laura into the water where she presumably drowns, leaving Martin devastated. What he does not know is this was all part of Laura’s escape plan as she flees to Iowa, determined to start a new life and seize a second chance at love. Unfortunately Martin pieces trace evidence together and realizes Laura is alive.
Sleeping with the Enemy was Julia Roberts’ first leading role after finding stardom with Pretty Woman (1990). Scripted by the prolific, albeit controversial Ron Bass - who went on to pen a less harrowing vehicle for the star in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1996) - this was an early entry in the domestic psycho craze of the early Nineties, wherein an everyman or woman discovers the person closest to them, be it their neighbour, roommate, or more damagingly partner, parent or offspring, is a ranting loon. Of course one can trace this subgenre back to Alfred Hitchcock but it was revitalized in a modern context by the excellent The Stepfather (1987), directed by Hitchcock devotee Joseph Ruben who handled the action here.
Although Sleeping with the Enemy lacks the subversive edge Ruben achieved with The Stepfather through collaborating with novelist Donald Westlake, the early scenes detailing Martin’s fascistic hold over Laura amidst a near-clinical facade of domestic bliss are handled with great skill. The film drew praise in some quarters for drawing attention to the serious issue of spousal abuse, including a handful of scenes that ring psychologically true, but also earned a degree of derision on account of its increasingly ludicrous plot contrivances. Notably the manner in which Martin realises his wife is alive, Laura’s visit to her hospital-bound mother as she sneaks past Martin disguised as a man, and the finale wherein the obsessive-compulsive villain’s presence is exposed because our heroine notices (yikes!) her towels are straight and her shelves orderly. Good ideas in principle but silly in practice, much like the scene where Martin ambushes the drama teacher he thinks is romancing his wife, only to discover (whoops!) the guy is gay.
The film sags after Laura heads out west and finds love with Ben (Kevin Anderson), an unlikely drama teacher and West Side Story fan who sports one of the worst mullet-and-designer-stubble combos. Despite a charming sequence where Roberts dons various costumes whilst dancing backstage to the sound of Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl”, which illustrates the spark and vivacity returning to the hitherto downtrodden heroine, the mid-section treads a little too close to a starrier version of a feelgood fable from the Lifetime Network. Roberts proves her worth as a leading woman, grounding the film with a strong, undeniably sympathetic performance. But coupled with Bergin’s unfortunate, Dick Dastardly-esque, moustache-twirling villainy, the shock tactics employed throughout the lady-in-peril climax edge things perilously into camp when, given the subject matter, it ought to be a lot more serious. One could also argue the climax muddles the film’s central female empowerment message for the sake of a last second shock.