A few times, The Sessions (Ben Lewin, 2012) reminded me of the incredible first paragraph of an Independent story about Richard Holloway from August, 2001. I read this at the time and have never forgotten it:
I am sitting with the Rev Richard Holloway, formerly Episcopalian Primus and Bishop of Edinburgh, now a Michel Foucault-lookalike public intellectual. We are musing on the theology of the homosexual blow-job. “I remember inviting Rabbi Lionel Blue up to talk to my rather conservative clergy,” he says. “He told us the most powerful experience of the sheer gratuitousness of the love of God he’d ever witnessed was in a male sauna in Amsterdam. He watched a young man going down on a raddled old gay man, who just didn’t have the ability to pull - and it was an act of pure grace. Now, how can you have that level of promiscuity associated with the grace of God?”A couple of months back, the question was: when did sex in the months stop being fun? That was in relation to Shame, in which Michael Fassbender’s hero is on a joyless quest through the bars, beds and toilet stalls of Lower Manhattan, as in a 70s sex film with a damned hero. As such, it’s as moral and borderline religious as Steve McQueen’s suffering-saint movie, Hunger (about Bobby Sands). The Sessions has a sunnier disposition. Lewin adapts the true story of poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, paralysed by polio at age six. He spent most of his life in an iron lung. In his late thirties, he sought to lose his virginity and hired a sex surrogate, a story he told in this article, which is the direct source of The Sessions. Helen Hunt, prompting memories of her role The Waterdance 20 years ago, plays sex surrogate/therapist Cheryl Cohen Greene, who has now written her own book on the back of this.
The film is entirely on O’Brien’s side. Sex is not just fun, it is healthy, even therapeutic, and central to being human. O’Brien’s Catholic priest, expanded from a brief reference in the article to “Father Mike”, and played in the movie by William H Macy (hip priest, pictured), has no real objections (“Jesus was never big on rules ... he often broke the rules out of compassion”). The story is told from within Catholicism’s world view, though, which O’Brien both adheres to and challenges, while the sex surrogate is in the process of converting from Catholicism to Judaism, a subplot that brings about some other religious considerations of the body (and a cameo for Rhea Perlman).
It’s not at all ponderous, though. It’s frank, funny, touching, sharply-written and well-performed. The most impressive acting is by John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien. Unrecognisable from his bit as cult leader/folk singer Patrick in Martha Marcy May Marlene, Hawkes is the thin, fragile form that Lewin contrasts repeatedly with the suffering figure on the cross. Richard Holloway and Lionel Blue would approve of that comparison, as well as of O’Brien’s worldly cynicism (“I believe in a God with a sense of humour. I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be able to blame someone for all this.”)