Friday, November 2, 2012

The Sessions & Midnight’s Children: Intimate Drama Surpasses Epic Tale

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in The Sessions

Hollywood has always liked the inspirational saga, usually involving perpetually losing sports teams coming from behind to capture a championship or a teacher turning things around at a troubled, dysfunctional school. Ben Lewin’s The Sessions is a little different. It’s the true story of a man, afflicted by polio when he was young, who decides to lose his virginity as an adult, by hiring a sex surrogate no less. Fortunately what sounds like a potentially tasteless sex farce or would be in certain hands is actually a touching drama about two people whose intimate interactions change each other’s lives for the better. And for once the kudos about the skilled acting on tap in a movie is true.

The film, an American independent production but one tailor-made for Hollywood which picked it up for distribution, begins with Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes, Deadwood, Winter’s Bone), who is featured as the subject of a news report that shows him receiving his journalism degree despite his handicap. It then picks his life up in 1989 Berkeley, California, as he's being wheeled around in an iron lung, which is his home for most of the day. But Mark, who is also a poet, is determined to experience sex, first falling in love with one of his nurses, who flees when he tells of his feelings. He then decides to ask advice of Father Brendan (William H. Macy), his friendly local priest, who gives him the go-ahead for pursuing carnal pleasures. Mark then reaches out to sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt, Mad About You, A Good Woman) who offers him six sessions in order so he may both consummate the act and, more importantly, learn to be good at pleasing a woman. Most of the film centers on their sessions and how they get to know each other both in and outside the bedroom.

Truth is, the movie wouldn’t be much of anything without Hunt and Hawkes’ stellar acting; Ben Lewin’s direction – he also wrote the movie – is competent at best. But O’Brien’s’ tale, also captured in Jessica Yu’s Academy award winning 1996 short documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien, is one of those truth is stranger than fiction stories that makes for an irresistible film subject. And since Lewin is a polio survivor himself, it’s there that he makes his film sing, deftly capturing a sweet man who simply wants to be loved for himself – just like any of us. (This film certainly registers more strongly than some of Lewin’s earlier movies, such as the forgettably innocuous The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish, 1991.)

Helen Hunt in The Sessions
The contrast between the tart, no nonsense Greene and the socially ill at ease O’Brien, at first makes for a rocky relationship. O’Brien initially manages to piss her off with some of his casual assumptions about her lifestyle, but she realizes soon enough that he doesn’t mean them and then, slowly, begins to fall for him. That happens partially because she’s not entirely happy at home, where she is raising her partner’s hostile son and planning a conversion to Judaism for his sake even though she harbours doubts about that decision. O’Brien, however, is a simple man in many ways and like many a virgin confuses love and sex when he first experiences the latter. How Greene resolves her inappropriate attraction to her client without managing to give O’Brien a complex in the process and fulfilling his wishes, too, allows for some deft scenes that are neither overly sugary nor trite. Due credit to Hunt who bravely tackles full nudity on film, a gutsy and unusual move for any American actress, though Hawkes doesn’t match her in that regard; a moment where Greene shows O’Brien how he looks naked in a mirror is denied the audience who doesn’t see that full revelation. (Considering that the film is largely about being comfortable with one's own sexuality and with sex, it's more than a shade dishonest to pull back on showing explicit male nudity in the same way as full female nudity is depicted.) However she’s more than just about her casual comfort with her body: Greene comes across as a professional whose work does put her at risk of breaking down barriers between herself and those she serves /services, and watching her slowly warm to O’Brien is subtle and very moving. Hawkes, too, shines in a very difficult role, which actually damaged his own spine as he played the part. O’Brien’s seemingly passive demeanour, verbally and physically, masks a man with deep emotions that are at odds with his basic wish to finally get laid at age 38. It’s not surprising that his sessions with Greene take a heavy toll on his psyche. And like many another skilled actor who has played a role that is physically limiting (Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Javier Bardem in The Sea Inside, Mathieu Amalric in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) Hawkes has to work harder to make his mark as a fully fleshed out character, which he deftly does.

The rest of the cast are fine albeit  as in the case of gifted character actor Adam Arkin as Greene’s fiancé, a philosopher who lives too much in his head  underused. (Rhea Perlman pops up briefly and effectively in one scene as the woman who helps Greene undergo the Jewish Mikvah (ritual bath.) And while I didn’t really buy William Macy’s overly laid back, shaggy-haired priest, the scenes between him and O’Brien discoursing on carnal subjects are still amusing. Strangely enough, the movie does gloss over O’Brien’s experiences after the sessions, which considering they changed him for the better and gave him confidence to move forward in his love life, is somewhat damaging to the movie’s whole – though not enough to undermine the heartfelt quasi-romance at its core. The Sessions was a big Sundance Film Festival winner (garnering an audience award and a Special Jury prize for the entire ensemble cast), but for once that festival’s top prize has gone to a movie with substance. It may be conventionally made, like many a Sundance entry, but it’s memorable and touching nonetheless.

By all rights, Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children, the much anticipated adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s acclaimed, Booker Prize winning epic 1981 novel, should have blown The Sessions out of the water. It contains everything, after all, from dramatic historical events to fantastical elements and family tragedies, the stuff of numerous fine novels – and films. But the movie version of Rushdie’s imaginative prickly book, though gorgeous to look at and originally scripted by Rushdie (Mehta herself wrote the final screenplay), is a singularly dull, flat affair which consistently underwhelms during its two and a half hour running time.

Shriya Saran and Satya Bhabha in Midnight's Children

Midnight’s Children refers to those boys and girls, who are born exactly at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the day India was given its independence by Britain. This led to a tumultuous, violent drawn out state of affairs, which resulted in the partition between largely Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan, also created on that date. Saleem Sinai (Satya Bhabha) is the main focus of the film, raised by wealthy parents but actually the result of a switch in the nursery by a Christian nurse who swaps the newborn infant with the surviving son of a poor street performer whose wife has died in childbirth. Growing up, Saleem soon discovers that he and the other babies born on the cusp of Indian independence have magical powers, varying in strength depending whether they were born just before or after midnight. (There’s more than a whiff of John Irving’s conceits in Rushdie’s book – the original, clever Irving of  the 1980’s The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany, not the recycling, retreading author of recent years.) Making his way through the world, Saleem finds himself experiencing life on both sides of the India/Pakistan divide as well as running afoul of India’s authorities during Indira Gandhi’s ‘Emergency Rule’, the period from 1975-77 when the country’s constitution was suspended and India became a de facto dictatorship. Saleem also finds himself involved with Parvati (Shriya Saran), a fellow Midnight’s Child but like all his experiences, the path to true love is an arduous one.

Despite its complexity, Midnight’s Children is a choppy, scattered film, abruptly dropping key characters (when Saleem leaves home, his parents disappear from the story) and failing to come to dramatic life, despite its heavy doses of magical realism. The problem is that Mehta, who, with the exception of her emotionally potent Fire (1996), a lesbian love story set in a repressive, intolerant Indian environment, has generally only made movies, such as Bollywood/Hollywood (2002) and Water (2005), which don’t accomplish much more than looking pretty. Midnight’s Children is no exception in that regard; the cinematography by Giles Nuttgens (Fire, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1997), Water) is simply ravishing, a beautiful painting come to life. And while Mehta is generally good with actors – veteran Shabana Azmi (City of Joy, Fire) plays Naseem, Shaleem’s grandmother – they can only do so much with the cardboard cutouts they’ve been given to interpret. I suspect the film’s relatively short running time didn’t help in doing justice to the rich tale – detailed, sprawling epics like this should hit the three hour mark, at least – but perhaps Deepa Mehta’s placid cinematic temperament is simply not up to the task of rendering Rushdie’s vision properly on screen. Rushdie’s raspy, atmospheric narration of the movie gives you an idea of how the film should have played out; his voice-overs are the only time Midnight’s Children displays any real grit. It may be a far more ambitious, wide-ranging movie than The Sessions but where it counts, as indelible movie-making, Midnight’s Children falls dramatically short of Ben Lewin’s quiet tale.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses and his courseIntelligent Art and Meticulous Craft: The Social Cinema of Sidney Lumet, at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (Bloor and Spadina, Toronto), began Monday October 15.

1 comment:

  1. I am so much looking forward to this movie. Hope it is as good as the review. Though too early to say this and that even without watching it, In my view this might be an Oscar winning movie :)

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