Seán Crosson reviews Len Collin’s debut feature, which closed this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
The Galway Film Fleadh closed this year with one of the most ambitious, innovative and deeply moving Irish films of recent times, Len Collin’s Sanctuary which received the award for Best First Irish Film. Featuring a cast composed mostly of intellectually disabled actors, Sanctuary explored with compassion, understanding and at times considerable humour challenges faced by intellectually disabled individuals in Ireland today, particularly when they fall in love. The achievement of this film is all the more impressive when one considers how rarely intellectually disabled actors have featured prominently in fiction film, with rare exceptions including Jaco Van Dormael’s Le huitième jour (The Eighth Day, 1996) and Marcelo Galvão’s Colegas (Buddies, 2012). Screenwriter Christian O’Reilly (whose previous credits include the story for disability themed feature Inside I’m Dancing (2004)) adapted Sanctuary from his play of the same name produced by Blue Teapot Theatre Company between 2012 and 2014. Director Collin and his collaborators (in particular Petal Pilley, CEO & Creative Director of Blue Teapot) wisely maintained the same cast from the original stage production who have clearly established a strong and convincing rapport. At the centre of the narrative are Larry (Kieran Coppinger) and Sophie (Charlene Kelly) who want to spend unsupervised time together in order to develop their relationship. However, as intellectually disabled individuals they are legally forbidden from developing a sexual relationship unless they are married leading them to bribe their care worker Tom (Robert Doherty) just so they can book a hotel room for several hours. Tom arranges a room for the couple during an outing to the cinema of the intellectually disabled group to which they belong. While Tom brings Larry and Sophie to the hotel, their friends leave the cinema unaccompanied to explore Galway city in scenes that reveal each character’s need to find their own sense of independence and personal expression outside the controlled confines of their day-to-day life.
Sanctuary cleverly and unobtrusively brings the viewer through the complexities faced by intellectually disabled people wishing to start a relationship – the relevant law is mentioned once in the narrative but its introduction is neither forced nor disruptive to the developing diegesis but rather a necessary part of understanding the rationale for the actions of the film’s lead characters. Furthermore, the film does not treat its subjects as objects of either pity or deserving of our sympathy; these are independent and remarkable individuals who offer fascinating perspectives on the world around them. The scenes in which the group members escape from the cinema to explore the city, its shops, markets, and pubs are particularly impressive in this respect. Each character engages with his/her surroundings in what may be considered unusual ways (as when one character puts a chain on a security guard and hugs him) but they simultaneously alert us to aspects of the world we inhabit but may have become blind to through over-familiarity.
This is an auspicious debut feature as a director from Len Collin, a graduate of the MA in Production and Direction at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway, and an experienced screenwriter for television in England, including writing credits with “EastEnders”,”Casualty” and “The Bill”. Films such as Sanctuary have a crucial role to play in our culture today; they open a dialogue and hopefully prompt debate of issues that should be of serious concern in any healthy society. To do so with the humour and compassion evident in Sanctuary is an achievement that will be appreciated by audiences across Ireland, and I expect, internationally.
Sanctuary screened on Sunday, 10 July 2016 as part of the Galway Film Fleadh.