the sleeping beauty of east finchley


Written and Directed by: Séamus Rea

The Sleeping Beauty of East Finchley is 50 minutes of very sweet and uplifting filmmaking, especially if you're the kind of person who appreciates a good BBC drama or two, a bit of choral music, or are just the romantic sort. On the other hand, if you thought my review of Scott Pilgrim vs The World was selling the poor film short on its dramatic merits, you should probably move along, there's nothing to see here.

The film is the lovely story of Joan, a middle-age woman living in England who divides her time between her lacklustre bookkeeping job and taking care of her invalided mother. She's exhausted and worn down, but she has one bright light in her life that sustains her - her love of music and her amazing singing voice.

It should be amazing too, with Joan being played by West End songstress Josie Walker (Phantom of the Opera). She's not a bad actress either. Walker manages to get Joan's angst and edge-of-depression look just right, enough to feel for Joan but never enough so that it feels Joan is asking for pity, because she isn't. She's just living her life how it is without complaint, and is wholly unprepared for the shake-up her world is about to get.

In a scene that was all the more beautiful for its simplicity, Joan is discovered singing along to a CD in her kitchen by her mother's day nurse, Pat (Ruth James), who falls instantly and palpably in love with the hapless Joan. Pat, it turns out, is a member of a choir called the Friends of Dusty (yes, I laughed) and invites Joan along to sing with them. Joan is initially reluctant, but she longs to sing, so she agrees.

The Friends of Dusty, as you can imagine, turn out to be a lesbian choir, and when Joan discovers it her Catholic guilt arrives to knock her already-ailing self esteem to the ground. She runs from the choir, and from Pat, into the clutches of her awful local church choir. The horridness of this just serves to convince her that she needs to give the Friends of Dusty, and her friendship with Pat, another chance. The story that then unfolds between the two women, one openly gay and mourning the death of her lover to cancer some years before, and one who has never really allowed herself to live, is really somewhat magical.

Unfortunately the film suffers from all the hallmarks of an independent short film, with somewhat shaky production values in parts - particularly in some of the overly-arty shot selection. (Why do we need shots of her feet?) It was all a bit twee in parts too, especially towards the end, but there were other moments when the film got it exactly right. For example, a scene where the two women share Pat's tragic history in the car stood out for me as wonderfully poignant, but not over-sentimentalised.

It also has a tendency to sacrifice what could have been more interesting and in-depth storytelling opportunities in favour of extended choir scenes which served to show off the choir's (admittedly gorgeous) singing voices and Joan's love of music, but they went on much too long. When you have music that good though I can see how it would be really hard to leave any of it on the cutting room floor.

Hats off to the filmmakers for exploring such utterly uncommercial territory. After all, there's not much call for touchy-feely films about older women falling gently in love without the mad passion that usually accompanies coming out stories. I would have given a lot for just one kiss though, as one of the lingering fallacies around older women on film is their desexualisation. Despite the looks Pat gives Joan being anything but chaste, the film seemed a touch nervous about that aspect, and the touching intimacy would have been all the better for some small signs of real sexuality.

These are all small gripes though for what was essentially a beautiful little film that was well conceived and well told. See it on the festival circuit sometime this year if you are so inclined towards quieter, more introspective films. But as I said before, if you prefer your films a bit racier and with a bit more action (wink wink), this might not be your...err... cup of tea.

Full disclosure - I'm grateful to the lovely people over at Cheek2Cheek productions in the UK for sending me the screener. If you're interested in this film you should check out their website at for any festivals scheduled, or perhaps later on for purchasing on DVD.

(Hat tip to the readers who pointed out I'd incorrectly said Joan was from Ireland. Mistake corrected.)

Got a comment? Write to me at



Last updated 9 September 2010