Directed by Ben Lewin
So this is the premise: a polio victim in his thirties, who spends most of his time in an iron lung, engages a sex surrogate to enable him to lose his virginity. The situation therefore is ripe for prurience, smuttiness and downright voyeurism. Except that this film doesn’t stray anywhere near those areas. Is it a sexy film then? No, it is not. It deals with sex in an adult and honest fashion: it is charming, funny and, if the woman behind me in the cinema is anything to go by, a tear-jerker.
Within seconds of appearing on screen, Helen Hunt as Cheryl, the sex surrogate, is completely convincing. The difference between sex surrogacy and prostitution is quickly established and she goes about her work with professional efficiency and care. The role calls for numerous nude scenes and her character has to be completely at home with her own body; a point made quite clearly by the scene in which she prepares for the ritual of conversion to the Jewish faith, itself a neat parallel to the process through which she led the disabled Mark. Using a mirror she enables him to see, and delight in, his own body for the first time in years.
It’s a process which the audience too must undergo. Liberal attitudes aside, the expectation must be that lying prone with a misshapen body, Mark can have little chance of physical or emotional fulfilment. Yet by the end of the film he has loved and been loved by three beautiful women. But that is not to belittle the complex interactions between characters which take place.
Cheryl’s husband is completely at ease with her profession; it does after all allow him to stay at home as house husband, and it is not until he opens a letter containing a poem from Mark to Cheryl that he feels threatened. Against all of the rules, the relationship between Mark and Cheryl has become personal; a state of affairs which Hunt demonstrates with a brilliantly understated performance. Consequently, the relationship between Cheryl and her husband becomes ambiguous: is she happy as she says or is there some truth in her confession that she has allowed things to become complicated?
Equally brilliant is the performance of William H Macy as Father Brendan. Constantly defying stereotypes (we are a long way from Bing Crosby and Richard Chamberlain playing fanciable priests here) he ranges from prayer leader, counsellor, friend and regular guy drinking beer. That he sanctions, even applauds, the act of sex outside of marriage must have great implications for his own celibacy but this is only hinted at with the merest of facial expressions and this is not the focus of the film. Rather it is his engaging interplay with John Hawkes playing Mark.
Two thirds of the way through the film I did wonder how it was all going to end. It actually ends as a celebration of love rather than sex, but there are no spoilers in this review. The ending is achieved without over-sentimentality or any trace of glibness. It is thought-provoking and heart-warming in the best sense. But how this is achieved is for you to go and see for yourself.
All I would say is that this is the best film I’ve seen for ages.