Stephen Porzio checks out Len Collins’ debut feature, which screened at this year’ s Audi Dublin International Film Festival.

There is a tendency within society to treat adults with intellectual disabilities as if they are children. It’s not the result of hate or disrespect. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – because they require special care and are innocent to many of the responsibilities of a “normal life”, society equates them to kids. However, it’s important to remember that people with special needs often crave the same things most ordinary adults do – intimacy, love and sex – experiences that are often out of reach for them.

Len Collins’ debut feature Sanctuary builds his drama around these needs. Larry (Kieran Coppinger) and Sophie (Charlene Kelly) are two disabled people in love. However, because of Irish law, they cannot consummate their relationship unless they are married. Craving intimacy and time alone, the two exploit the feckless nature of their care worker Tom (Robert Doherty), bribing him into renting the two lovers a hotel room for an afternoon tryst. The trio sneak away during their special needs group’s regular cinema outing. As Tom neglects the others in his care to accompany Larry and Sophie, the rest of the gang leave the theatre – embarking on their own adventures throughout Galway City.

Written and based on a play by Christian O’Reilly (who had a hand in the similarly disability themed Inside I’m Dancing), the film is undeniably audacious and brave in terms of its subject matter. Not only is it rather amazing to see a cast comprising mostly of intellectually disabled actors, but to witness them communicating their experience with such elegance and grace is an incredible feat. Selecting the same performers from the stage run of Sanctuary was a master stroke decision by O’Reilly and Collins. The performances feel so natural, suggesting the writer and director crafted a positive atmosphere – enabling their actors, who must have already spent a huge portion of time with their characters, to play their parts with an authenticity unparalleled with many films of a similar ilk.

The movie, rather admirably isn’t black and white about the issues it raises. Although, Sanctuary’s plot centres on people denied the basic right of any “normal” person – the right to express love physically, the narrative does wrestle with the complications of this premise. Tom points out that the law was created to actually protect those with an intellectual disability from being exploited, a consequence of the many sexual abuse cases in Ireland’s recent past. Also, a substantial portion of the drama rests on Tom’s inability to use a condom, having never been taught sex-education growing up, a necessity for teens in most secondary schools. Sanctuary, right up until its dark ending, refuses to be morally simple in its questioning of how society perceives and treats those who are different and require considerate care in Ireland.

The film is also quite timely in certain respects, highlighting how in recession-era Ireland, special need care programmes were the first victims of funding cuts. An early scene sees Tom’s group being told they are now unemployed, having previously been given small menial work. When a member asks if they are being punished for doing a poor job, Tom replies: “no one wants to pay you properly and if they do you’ll lose your benefits. Some bright civil servant got a pay raise for that one” –  a line painfully relevant to anyone with disabled family members entangled in government red-tape.

Yet, despite its bold and weighty themes, Sanctuary does have tonal problems. For instance, the scenes of Larry and Sophie in their hotel room are beautifully delicate, capturing deftly the happiness, the sadness and the nervousness of the characters’ relationship. It’s as if the two have wanted this time alone for so long, that they never believed it could happen. Now that it has, they are petrified of wasting it. These moments jar with the escapades of the other members of their cinema trip, which feel like they are from a much lesser, more accessible mainstream comedy.

Although these vignettes are intermittently funny, a lot of the “jokes” derive from the wacky actions of the protagonists, something which feels a little wrong given that people with special needs often can’t control the way they act. Plus, a comic scene where a character, in an effort to find Tom, karate chops the doors of toilet cubicles – leaving the people using them startled – just doesn’t flow with Sophie’s harrowing tale of the sexual abuse she suffered in the past just a few minutes later.

That said, these transgressions are forgivable because the movie’s comedy may enable Sanctuary to reach a larger demographic. Thus, enabling it to get a wider release in Ireland, perhaps on the level of A Date for Mad Mary – something which it deserves. Not only does it look like a proper film – I was surprised to learn it was based on a play, a credit to Collin’s direction – but it focuses on the trials and tribulations of people often under presented or misrepresented in cinema, let alone Irish cinema.


Sanctuary screened on Saturday, 18th February 2017 at the Light House Cinema as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.


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