IFFR 2011: SENSATION review

(spoiler warning: this film does not contain any sex with sheep, and neither does this review)

We have mentioned Tom Hall's "Sensation" before here at Twitch. A film about a lonely guy stuck on a sheep farm, who shacks up with a hooker and starts an illegal brothel? That fits nearly all of our categories in one fell swoop, possibly including horror and fantasy!

The trailer was promising a quite highbrow approach though. I was pleased to see that the International Film Festival Rotterdam had programmed this film with director Tom Hall present, so I went to the screening to check it out.

But was it a shameless piece of oo-er? Read on...


The Story:

Donal lives with his stern father on a dreary Irish sheep farm. But when the old man dies, Donal suddenly has both money and the freedom to do whatever he wishes with it. He spends some time with Kim, an older prostitute he contacts through the Internet, and the two come up with a business plan for starting an escort service using her business expertise and his money.

The plan is very successful but, this being Ireland, having an escort service is also VERY illegal. And the newly blooming Donal is quite a standout in his town...


The Movie:

Insert any sort of dirty sheep joke in here. Come on, you know you want to!

Thing is, Tom Hall doesn't. The one time he does refer to sex with a sheep it is very wry indeed: Donal telling Kim the only sex education advice he has ever gotten holds more hidden frustration and self-loathing than many a drama. Even though Donal never comes out and says it, he obviously HATES the stifled and coarse existence he has at the start of the film. In contrast Kim seems liberated, refined and intelligent to him, but both are equally determined to head for change.

Sensation-ext1.jpgAnd this is where "Sensation" shines: its two lead characters and their relationship as portrayed by Domhnall Gleeson and Luanne Gordon. Both actors are absolutely fantastic in their roles, and if the edge goes to Domhnall it is only because he has more to do here. It would be so easy to make Donal a naive oaf and Kim the cliché "hooker with a heart of gold" but Hall makes both characters a lot more interesting, for starters by making them both a lot more intelligent.

He also makes their surroundings a lot more realistic than in most stories of this ilk: Ireland during an economic depression does not look particularly romantic in this film and neither does prostitution. Even though Kim and Donal may both not be the most sympathetic people, you do hope they will succeed in their venture. Cracks appear in their relationship as they wonder who is exploiting who, and though that is not surprising you still hope both will have enough good sense to make it all work. Seeing the law get closer to them is no fun, particularly when their "crimes" are actually completely legal over here in Rotterdam. It made the whole audience go "Aw, C'mon!" at one point.

Frankly speaking the audience also went "What?" a lot of the time because of the Irish dialect involved. As a Dutchman I generally pride myself on my understanding of English but without subtitles I was glad whenever Luanne Gordon started speaking with her clipped teacher's voice so I could at least make out the conversation.

As for the inherent raunchiness of the tale: in other hands this might have turned quite exploitative but Tom Hall has done the utmost to keep his film on the right side of tasteful. That doesn't mean there is no nudity in it, but you never get the impression it's put in there for titillation's sake. During the Q&A-session after the screening Tom Hall confessed he was very embarrassed during the shooting and was glad he had a Dutch cameraman who would unabashedly give advice like "pour on some oil" at the right time.
It makes the film restrained but it never gets prudish either. Tom told the audience that he could easily have made "Sensation" a far more explicit film but then he said: "... nobody would want to see that...".

He was serious too. Really, Tom? And here I was, thinking there was a whole industry centered around just that...
Joking aside, Tom's attitude pays off as his movie has become all the more classy because of it.


Conclusion:

The only problems I see facing this film in its future are the ones concerning marketing. Though "Sensation" is very funny at times, a sex comedy it is definitely not. It is however a realistic and strongly acted drama, and very well-made indeed. The subject is broached here with a lot of subtlety and even empathy, anchored with excellent acting by all the leads.

Tom Hall, Domhnall Gleeson and Luanne Gordon have every reason to be proud of their film, and as such "Sensation" comes highly recommended!

The audiences at the IFFR awarded the film a 3.8 out of 5, which I thought to be a tad low. Maybe subtitles would have helped?
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