FILM REVIEW: The Sessions (15)

Once in a while, an actor delivers a performance of such raw emotional power that it’s impossible to tear your eyes from the screen.John Hawkes, who received an Oscar nomination in 2011 for the indie drama Winter’s Bone, achieves the staggering feat in The Sessions.

In Ben Lewin’s magnificent film, he plays poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, who was paralysed from the neck down by childhood polio and required an iron lung to breathe.

O’Brien’s wit and courage were brilliantly immortalised in Jessica Yu’s Oscar-winning 1996 documentary short Breathing Lessons.

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Laying on gurneys and beds for almost the entire film, Hawkes effortlessly conveys his character’s maelstrom of insecurities with fearlessness and tenderness.

It’s a virtuoso portrayal of a gentle spirit who refused to be overwhelmed by his disability, and recalls the tour-de-force theatrics of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot.

Hawkes really is THAT good.

His omission from this year’s Best Actor nominations at the Academy Awards is bewildering.

The Sessions begins with Mark completely reliant on his pretty nurse Amanda (Annika Marks) to survive.

He gradually falls in love with her, only to be rebuffed - she simply doesn’t feel the same.

“Welcome to the human race - every day, somebody breaks somebody else’s heart,” a friend consoles Mark.

Amanda quits and no-nonsense Vera (Moon Bloodgood) takes over day-to-day duties, wheeling Mark around California with a breathing tube.

When he is asked to pen a feature on Sex And The Disabled, Mark is introduced to married sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who believes she can help him overcome his self-doubt and perceived limitations during six one-to-one sessions.

Cheryl slowly breaks down Mark’s defences with body awareness exercises, then builds his confidence to achieve intercourse, which one male character amusingly describes as “overrated... but necessary”.

An intense bond forms between the two, and after each meeting, Cheryl returns to compile her notes before cuddling up to her husband Josh (Adam Arkin), who is completely accepting of her unusual choice of professional.

However, when Mark pens Cheryl a poem to express his deep feelings, Josh loses his veneer of cool, fearful that professional and personal boundaries could be crossed during their encounters behind closed doors.

The Sessions eschews smuttiness and mawkish sentiment, presenting Mark’s condition with unflinching candour.

Hawkes commands every elegantly crafted frame.

Not once does he trade on pity, allowing us to see past the physical and into Mark’s fragile, wounded heart.

William H Macy provides comic relief as the local priest who becomes Mark’s confidant, while Hunt bares everything for the role, delivering her best performance since As Good As It Gets, which is an apt summation for Lewin’s remarkable film.


Released: January 18 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas), 93 mins