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Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)

Alternate title: A Man Just Wants a Wife, Damnit!

Man, trailers were weird in the 90s.

I have fond memories of watching this movie. I’m pretty sure I made my friends watch it at a sleepover and it probably wasn’t age-appropriate for a gaggle of newish teens but we all loved it because, Julia Roberts. The 90s were her era and Sleeping with the Enemy came right after a solid wave of Julia in Steel Magnolias, Pretty Woman, and Flatliners. I dare you to sum up the decade in a better way.

In Sleeping with the Enemy, Julia Roberts plays uneasy wife Laura Burney, or Lauraaaaa, as her husband Martin is fond of calling her. Martin, played intensely by Patrick Bergin, is a super creepy, but charming, mustachioed psychopath who beats his wife. The director, Joseph Ruben, does a really good job of introducing a feeling of something-not-quite-right-edness from the opening scene of Laura digging clams in her front yard (beachfront) of the couple’s summer house in Cape Cod. After an awkward and simpering exchange about dinner, Laura hugs Martin goodbye as he sets off to work, getting a spec of sand on his tie which she then profusely apologizes for and he insists it’s no problem, stating he has time to change before work. Uhhhhh?

On first viewing, I knew even before he spoke one word that Martin was bad news—it was the fresh-faced, clean-shaven 1990’s after all; only cowboys and Wilford Brimley wore mustaches.

Martin likes everything to be exact in his perfect, modern glass house, from the tins lined up labels facing front in his cupboards to how his wife dresses for an evening party. It’s exhausting to be Laura and we see it take a toll as she is no more than an automaton there to please her husband’s every controlling wish. A neighbour invites the couple to go for an evening sail and Laura seizes the chance to leave her domineering husband behind. She escapes by going overboard during an unexpected storm and swims ashore while her husband makes crazy eyes and yells “Lauraaaaaaaaaa” non-stop. He thinks she’s afraid of the water and can’t swim. Ha!

Laura (gasp) cuts her hair, and buses to the midwest to start her life anew. She had stashed a roll of money (a literal roll of bills) and is able to rent an entire furnished house for only $700 without any references or credit. All cash, all the time in the 90s. Luckily she has moved next door to a lion-mane haired man named Ben (played by a softly-spoken Kevin Anderson) who “helps” her out during this difficult time. Presto! She gets a job at the college library stacking books that apparently pays all her bills. I mean, I used to work at a library and it was a union position that paid more than minimum wage, but still. Is small town USA 90s living that cheap? Magical.

Ben teaches drama at said college and takes Laura to the campus theatre after work one day to try on costumes and dance to Dion’s “Runaround Sue” on the old-timey cassette player. She sticks her tongue out a lot and oh, they laugh and laugh! Is this a romantic comedy? I’m confused but I also really love a good montage so viewing pleasure trumps believable storyline once again. The rest of the film plays out as expected (new life = new man = happily ever after) but with a vengeance-filled ending that is pretty darn satisfying. I love a good thriller and this one has solid pacing, a Jaws-like soundtrack, likable characters to root for and a nemesis you want bad things to happen to. However, it’s a very different viewing experience to watch this now versus when it first came out. I don’t think the simplicity of the Laura and Ben relationship would fly with viewers today—I can tell you, it makes me pretty angry to watch as an adult now. I mean, how many young viewers have internalized that BS and thought it was a “good” outcome?

During my library days I discovered the novel (of the same name) by Nancy Price and it has decidedly more ominous undertones of what it means to be a wife, to “belong” to someone and to be the object of a man’s desire—a man’s desire of having a wife of their very own. I remember reading the last few pages and feeling shook. I expected a happy ending, or at least a resolved ending, and instead I was left with a sense of dread. I would love to see a remake of the film that echo’s those feelings of uneasiness.

So, while I encourage you to watch this movie NOW! (it’s on Netflix), I also highly recommend you read the book (it’s at your public library).

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