Review – The Sessions

The human spirit is a quite remarkable thing; our innate ability to overcome great obstacles and keep smiling in the face of tragedy sets us apart.

Our greatest inspiration is often found from those with disabilities who overcome significant obstacles to achieve things they and we never thought possible.

The Sessions – “uplifting cinema without the schmaltz”

Acclaimed poet and journalist Mark O’Brien was paralyzed from the neck down as a child after contracting polio and as a result was forced to spend the vast majority of each day confined to an iron lung to help with his breathing. Whilst interviewing other disabled people about how they found having and enjoying sex, Mark came to fervently envy them and became determined to lose his virginity.

This is the set-up for Ben Lewin’s warmly touching true-life drama based on Mark’s physical and spiritual adventure and the impact it and he had on those around him. A committed Catholic, Mark (played by John Hawkes) first consults Father Brendan (William H. Macy) about the theological quandary this poses. Taking into account Mark’s circumstances, he concludes the Almighty would in all likelihood give him “a free pass on this one”.

The stage is set for Mark to hire professional sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt). At first his fear and awkwardness is palpable, but as their sessions continue a tender bond develops between the two.

It’s a stone-cold fact that disability sells when it comes to awards season and it’s likely The Sessions will be recognised in the same way as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, A Beautiful Mind and Forrest Gump before it.

Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) employs the services of sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt) in Ben Lewin’s The Sessions

That being said, not a cynical bone exists in the picture’s body. The largely excellent cast see to that, pulling back when histrionics could be reached for or emotional heartstrings pulled.

Given her strongest role in years, Hunt excels. It’s a brave, utterly believable performance of a person who comes to re-evaluate herself the closer she gets to Mark, whose article On Seeing a Sex Surrogate the film is based on.

After scaring the bejesus out of us with quietly menacing portraits of a drug-addicted killer and cult leader in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene respectively, Hawkes pulls a complete about-turn here as a man who gradually realises there’s nothing to be gained from punishing yourself for reasons beyond your control. His bright optimism hides a what-would-Jesus-say guilt and fear that erodes over time as he becomes more comfortable in his own skin.

Father (William H Macy) conducts an unusual confessional with Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) in The Sessions

Father Brendan (William H. Macy) conducts an unusual confessional with Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) in The Sessions

In addition, Macy is on fine form as the sincere priest who forms a genuine friendship with Mark, while Moon Bloodgood’s poker face portrayal of Mark’s carer Vera nicely contrasts his heart-on-sleeve demeanour.

The warm hues used by Lewin (a polio survivor himself) reflect the cosy nature of the film, while Marco Beltrami’s soundtrack stays the right side of manipulative.

In many ways Mark’s preoccupations with sex, fear and religion are no different to many sections of American society, and while Lewin ultimately sides with the sexually liberated Cheryl’s mantra that we should “stop thinking about it so much” he never once pokes fun at Mark’s hang-ups.

The kind of film where a smile and a tear are never too far away from each other, The Sessions is uplifting cinema without the schmaltz and for that it should be congratulated.

London Film Festival 2011 – Chapter 8

The end is approaching for this year’s London Film Festival for yours truly, but where there are films to be screened, reviews will be sure to follow.

One of the mostly hotly anticipated films at this year’s LFF was Martha Marcy May Marlene, a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

The film centres around Martha (newcomer Elizabeth Olsen) who, when we meet her is running away from a remote commune in the Catskill Mountains. She manages to evade the other members before the intimidating Watts (Brady Corbet) catches up with her, but lets her go after Martha makes a plea for freedom.

With nowhere else to go, Martha calls Lucy (Sarah Paulson), the sister she hasn’t seen in two years. A relieved Lucy brings Martha back to the plush lakeside summer house she shares with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) and, evidently delighted to see her again, welcomes her back into her life.

Gentle questioning by Lucy as to where Martha has been the past two years brings the stonewalled reply that she was living with a man who lied to her. But it seems evident to Lucy that Martha isn’t being entirely forthcoming and has become more insular and unpredictable, fine one moment, withdrawn the next.

As Martha struggles to reacquaint to normal life with Lucy and an increasingly impatient Ted, we see through flashback how she was first introduced to the commune – made up mostly of young women and a handful of men – and to its charismatic, emotionally manipulative leader Patrick (John Hawkes, as quietly scary as he was in Winter’s Bone).

Lonely and vulnerable, Martha is renamed Marcy May by Patrick and after a period of uncertainty, including a deeply troubling moment when she is taken advantage of by Patrick so she can be ‘cleansed’, she slowly buys into the group’s dynamic and becomes indoctrinated.

Although the group espouses self-sufficiency, this doesn’t extend to some of them breaking into houses and helping themselves to whatever they can find. But when one break-in goes horribly wrong Martha is shaken to her core, presumably prompting her to make a run for it, although this is never clarified.

Haunted by her memories, which she can no longer rely on as being real or just delusions, an increasingly paranoid and unpredictable  Martha begins to suspect Patrick and the others have managed to track her down to the summer house, while an exasperated Lucy feels she can no longer help her sister and gradually accepts Ted’s suggestion to get Martha professional help.

An incredibly assured feature debut by writer-director Sean Durkin, Martha is your classic unreliable narrator, giving Martha Marcy May Marlene an uneasy, schizophrenic atmosphere from the start. Durkin isn’t afraid to make his central protagonist unlikable at times, and Olsen gives a break-out performance as someone whose emotional wiring is clearly on the blink.

The film’s conclusion is also likely to produce much debate – who exactly is in that car at the very end? Unless there’s a sequel it’s doubtful we’ll ever find out.

One of the things the festival has endeavoured to do in recent years is to actively promote new British cinema. Although the British film industry is in as healthy a state as it’s been for quite a while, the line-up of Brit flicks this time around didn’t appear that attractive.

One of the stand-outs in the lush festival guide was Junkhearts, the debut feature from Tinge Krishnan. Krishnan has certainly secured a top-totch cast, with Eddie Marsan (always a supporter of British film) and Romola Garai topping the bill, and rising star Tom Sturridge and newcomer Candese Reid filling the ‘exciting new talent’ quota.


Marsan is Frank, a ramshackle, broken ex-soldier living with a terrible secret from his time serving in Northern Ireland, who can’t see beyond his next bottle of whiskey.

While stocking up on his daily drink fix at his local off-licence he encounters Lynette (Reid), a mouthy teenager  sleeping rough. Frank initially ignores Lynette, preferring not to get involved, but when he comes across her for a second time a connection between the two is made and, taking pity on her, he invites her back to his unkempt tower block flat to get some rest and clean herself up.

Meanwhile, in another part of London, Christine (Garai) is trying and failing to juggle a high-pressure job, drug habit, affair and motherhood. Christine seems to sleepwalk through her life, just like Frank. But Frank is woken from his self-destructive slumber by the paternal affection shown by Lynette and for a moment there is hope.

However, that chance of redemption for both Frank and Lynette quickly evaporates with the arrival of Lynette’s rotten, drug-dealing boyfriend Danny (Sturridge). Soon the flat has been taken over and turned into a drug den, while Frank retreats to the bottle.

But when a second chance to save himself and Lynette materialises, will Frank be able to keep himself together long enough?

For a film that is so unremittingly bleak for large portions, there has to be a hook on which to keep the audience invested and that hook comes in the form of the performances of Reid, Sturridge and Marsan, all of whom are terrific. And to the film’s credit you’re kept guessing as to whether Frank will be able to come good in the end.

Also, hats off to Krishnan for showing a more realistic, grittier side of London – there are no picture postcard shots of the Houses of Parliament or the Gherkin here.

However, the whole plot strand involving Christine simply doesn’t work and Gorai is wasted in a role that’s paper-thin and only there to service a suitable emotional pay-off at the end. You’ll also work out pretty quickly what the connection between the seemingly disparate plot threads are.

Krishnan shows promise though and, with a slightly better script it will be interesting to see where she goes next.