Thursday, 8 November 2012


20th Century Fox Films
Now Showing

Who knew the phrase "wouldn't work in an iron lung" sometimes came with an addendum. *Penis not included. Certainly for Mark O'Brien, afflicted with polio as a boy and reliant on an iron lung for his breathing ever since, spending hours in the chamber every day, the only part of the journalist and poet's body more active and alert than his mind and mouth (which he uses to wield a pencil to type and dial the phone) is his penis.

The appendage involuntarily responds to his carers' attentions during sponge baths, and the 38-year-old virgin, understandably embarrassed, begins to think it may be time to do something about it. But Mark is also a practising Catholic and seeks guidance from his local, and newly-arrived priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Is it okay to have sex outside of marriage? Father Brendan, thrown for a loop at first, seems to think God might just be okay with it this time, you know, given the circumstances.

The relationship between parishioner and priest is one of the small delights of The Sessions, Australian director Ben Lewin's feature which, despite the subject matter (sex and the disabled), is never awkward. There's a light, naturalistic sense of humour which pervades the film, no doubt as a result of Lewin's own experiences with polio (suffering with it most of his life) as much as the character of O'Brien, who was in fact a real man (O'Brien's own article, On Seeing A Sex Surrogate, the basis of Lewin's screenplay).

So where does a disabled man go to have sex? Obviously not a prostitute when you're a devout Catholic. Enter sex surrogate Cheryl Green (Helen Hunt), who makes it quite clear on their first meeting, when Mark makes a financial faux pas, that she is no hooker. The wife and mother of a teenage son provides a service which, in six sessions (hence the title; originally the film was called The Surrogate) will cover body awareness and determine what makes Mark feel good sexually, before they finally go all the way.

Helen Hunt has been little seen on the big screen since winning the 1997 Best Actress Oscar for As Good As It Gets, but she makes a triumphant return in The Sessions. Hunt's Cheryl, with those happy-sad eyes of hers, is a warm but no-nonsense woman whose matter-of-factness is a good match for Mark's wit and naivete. Both she and Hawkes give terrific performances.

Hawkes contorts and twists his body, changes his breathing and his voice, all to convey the effort that goes into Mark's day-to-day existence. But Hawkes doesn't play O'Brien as a victim; he's a poet and an optimist and that shines through. That Hawkes conveys all of this while spending the entire film on his back, makes the performance all the more impressive.

On the other hand, I found the hypocrisy as it related to nudity a tad troubling. While Hunt frequently gets naked, including full frontal, the camera never moves below Hawkes' chest. I find it odd that a film about a man's sexual journey should be so reticent to even glimpse the appendage which more or less sets O'Brien's quest in motion.

Still, that's a minor complaint about a film that deals so sensitively, maturely and intelligently with the topic of sex. As naff as the terms 'life-affirming' and 'inspirational' are, The Sessions, and more specifically, Mark O' Brien, who died in 1999, certainly is.

And as a film about unlikely connections between able-bodied and differently-abled people, I found The Sessions to be far more subtle and rewarding than the insistent The Intouchables, France's Oscar entry (and possible, though unworthy, winner?) in the 2012 Foreign Language Film category.

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