Adapted from the stage play of the same name, Sanctuary takes a probing look at sexuality and disability. This film adaptation retains the Blue Teapot Theatre cast but expands the scope of the original work with delightful, surprising, and remarkable results.
The film opens with an obscured view of Larry (Kieran Coppinger) as he pokes at the camera in an attempt to open up our viewpoint. A cut to medium distance reveals that we have been watching Larry through the coin slot of a particularly plump and cute piggy bank.
Larry’s desperate for money. For what reason, we don’t know, but he’s more than willing to smash open the piggy to get it. A couple of scenes later Larry exchanges some cryptic words and a mountain of hard-earned change with Tom (Robert Doherty) one of the care workers at the training centre. Something’s up.
This sequence plays out like some bizarre drug deal, and my expectations at the early stages of Sanctuary jumped straight to sinister plot lines and developments. However, what actually transpires is far sweeter and a lot more dramatic than any crime story. But I’ll come back to that.
The early scenes in the film do a good job of establishing the group of trainees through slice-of-life vignettes. Sophie (Charlene Kelly) takes a leisurely morning bath and prepares breakfast for the other members of her care home. Emphasis is placed on Sophie’s tremor. She labours over cutting sandwiches for her friends.
Later, Larry helps Sophie pour some tea. The other members of the group busy themselves around a large table. They’re packing plastic envelopes as part of their work at the training centre. Here we have a chance to get to know the group through a series of screwball-style comedic exchanges.
Sandy (Emer Macken) has a soft spot for Peter (Michael Hayes), which the rest of the group find amusing. William and Matthew (Frank Butcher and Paul Connolly) form a comedic double-act and consistently have the best exchanges in the film.
The joking and laughing is interrupted by one of the training centre’s staff, who explains that this is the last day of parcel packing for the group. From here on, the centre will offer classes to the group but they will not receive pay as this would affect their benefits.
There are moments like this at various points in the film, little pieces of information that illuminate these everyday situations faced by people with intellectual disabilities. These elements never feel preachy or unnatural. Instead, their inclusion adds to the film’s sense of realism; these are actual issues that enhance the down-to-earth kitchen-sink style of Sanctuary.
Coming back to the main plot now, the group embark on a day trip to the Eye Cinema in Galway. Beforehand, Larry hastily changes his clothes following his shift in a local ice-cream parlour and makes a dash for the mini bus.
Sophie is particularly concerned about Larry’s whereabouts. There’s no need to worry though, as he soon appears in frame, strutting with an assured swagger. Coppinger has a great physicality about his acting. There’s a lot of big movement that enhances his comedic presence. When he’s in frame it’s hard to focus on anything else.
The bus journey treats us to a good musical gag as the driver forbids singing, only for the film to cut to a lively sing-along session. It’s one of many sequences that reinforce the film’s dedication to comedy as well as the experience and skill of director, Len Collin, at constructing amusing situations with considerable pay-offs.
At the cinema, a scheme’s afoot. Sophie and Larry are accompanied to the bathroom by Tom, only to be led away to a nearby hotel. Larry and Sophie wish to spend some quality time together. The mound of loose change was to pay for a bridal suite for the couple.
In facilitating their romantic tryst, Tom is jeapordizing his job, and what’s more, Larry and Sophie are breaking the law. The film makes many references to Section 5 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act, 1993. Again, this is a story that finds its inspiration in reality.
In the lobby of the hotel, Tom is forced to explain the situation to his friend, hotel receptionist Clare. She’s taken aback: “I never thought of them that way. They always seem so full of hugs.”
Misconceptions are highlighted throughout the picture in similar exchanges. One of the many strengths of writer Christian O’Reilly’s screenplay is that sequences such as this don’t feel heavy-handed. This is never more evident than in the sequences exploring Larry and Sophie’s intimate encounter.
These scenes in the hotel room between Larry and Sophie were the focal point of the stage production of Sanctuary, and they move from comedy to tragedy and back again at pace. There’s a frankness about the material that magnifies the depth of emotion on show. And we feel it along with them.
As Sophie speaks about her troubled past, the audience is brought to tears, only to have them dry and turn to beaming smiles of joy as Larry performs an impromptu dance number. O’Reilly’s script handles all of these elements with care. The dramatic moments are given weight in their matter-of-fact presentation, and the comedy is given serious attention as well.
It was impossible for me not to be charmed by Sanctuary, a film that is unafraid to tackle heavy issues head-on, while also leaning into its cast’s considerable comedic talent. I was especially impressed by the film’s resistance to taking darker turns. It does of course explore distressing situations, but every time I expected the film to threaten its characters with danger of violence, I was pleasantly surprised to see gentleness and warmth instead.
There is no clear-cut resolution in Sanctuary; the obstacles at the heart of the film are still in place at the close of the picture because they still exist in our law today.
There is, however, a hopefulness to the film’s closing sequence, as characters pair off and fall asleep – we see something of a sanctuary in their friendships. Some, if not all of the trainees have found solace in these closing moments.
Sanctuary is a hilarious, touching and important film that will undoubtedly make waves upon its theatrical release.
Sanctuary was screened on Saturday in Dublin as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival. It is expected to go on general release later this year.