Sanctuary: a forbidden tryst with a twist in the tail

Len Collin’s feature debut is a must-see knockabout comedy that takes a serious look at the rights of the intellectually disabled

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Director: Len Collin
Cert: 15A
Genre: Comedy
Starring: Kieran Coppinger, Charlene Kelly, Robert Doherty, Michael Hayes, Emer Macken, Paul Connolly, Frank Butcher, Patrick Becker, Jennifer Cox and Valerie Egan
Running Time: 1 hr 30 mins

Larry (Kieran Coppinger) and Sophie (Charlene Kelly) are in love and keen to book into a hotel for some alone time. Trouble is, both parties have intellectual disabilities and, unless they are married, alone time is likely in breach of Section 5 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act, 1993. (This law was only repealed in May of this year.)

On a group trip to Galway, their sympathetic care worker Tom (Robert Doherty) is entrusted with the contents of Larry’s piggy-bank. He books the young couple a hotel room while his other charges run amok. Amid various capers, Sandy’s (Emer Macken) crush on Peter (Michael Hayes) makes for a standalone screwball comedy, and William (Frank Butcher) and Matthew (Paul Connolly) could easily have wandered out of a Roddy Doyle novel.

In cinema, intellectual disability often translates into big hammy performances (Radio, I Am Sam) or misunderstood superpowers (Rain Man, The Accountant). With a few exceptions – notably Down's syndrome stars Pascal Duquenne and Chris Burke – it remains unusual to see the intellectually disabled on film, so a film starring nine such actors is exceptional even before the opening credits roll.

Don't be fooled by the superficial worthiness of the project, or, indeed, by the knockabout humour. Sanctuary, an adaptation of the theatre play of the same name by Christian O'Reilly, is cunningly calibrated to resemble a light-hearted comedy, replete with dress-up scenes, hellraising and a sexual romp. Russel Gleeson's freewheeling camerawork, Joseph Conlon's twinkling score, and Sonja Mohlich's playful designs all amplify the frolicsome antics.

Against this, there’s darkness and gravity lurking in the material. Watch and try not to wrestle with the film’s implications regarding autonomy and independence. What if the laws we have constructed to protect the vulnerable dehumanise them? What if they – and we – infantilise the intellectually disabled?

“I never thought of them that way,” says the hotel receptionist of Larry and Sophie: “They always seem so full of hugs.”

O'Reilly's script has been written around the actors so the ensemble is particularly strong. This may be Len Collin's feature debut, but the Huston School graduate is an industry veteran with an impressive history of TV screenwriting credits (EastEnders, Casualty). That experience tells in every carefully constructed, compassionate, comical scene.

Sanctuary has won major awards at the Dublin International Film Festival, the Galway Film Fleadh, and the Newport Beach Film Festival. Go see why.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic