The opening minutes of Sensation are not a stimulating thrill ride or a feast for the senses. In fact, they could be described as bleak. I’m going to be careful not to mislead you here; I don’t want the word bleak to imply that the early scenes are moving, or interestingly dark. Instead, I mean bleak as in “without hope or expectation of success or improvement”. The world of central character Donal is defined by its dullness and the fact that it is never likely to change. His uneventful life has left him numb, and so emotionless that when he discovers his father dead on the stair lift, he uses the remote to bring the cold corpse slowly down, rather than rushing up.
You may find that, as I did, the start of Sensation will induce that “where have I seen him before?” feeling. This was the most pressing thing about the film for its first quarter of an hour, that nagging frustration that is impossible to shake. So I paused the film, utilised a well known internet search engine and discovered that lead actor Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Donal, also played Bill Weasley in the last few Harry Potter films. Cue the knowing nod that accompanies the phrase “I knew I recognised him!”. Curiosity quenched, I could now begin to concentrate on the film itself.
Following the funeral of Donal’s father we watch a young man shuffle through a very lonely existence. The really disheartening thing about Donal’s grief is that it is so minimal. He had clearly been expecting his father’s death and we do not really witness any sadness relating to it. It’s also clear that Donal’s loneliness goes back far, far further than the eventual demise of his sick dad. His best friend Karl, who lives in a caravan on Donal’s farm land, suggests that the funds freed up by his father’s death might be the making of Donal. But Donal has no idea how to use the cash wisely in the nothingness of the Irish countryside. His only half plan is to move to Dublin.
This complicated, but essentially sympathetic portrayal of Donal, is offset by hints towards a darker side of his character. That initial moment where he waits for the stair lift’s grim and personal cargo to descend is both shocking and repulsive. It’s symbolic of Donal’s laziness, lack of drive and dangerous naivety. Whilst Donal’s problems are real and capable of inspiring sympathy, his only solace is sordid and shameful. Ignorant of girls and relationships, Donal is fascinated by sex. However, his perception of sex is skewed by the internet. His only experience of it comes from the online world, where he sports the nickname of “Sweetdick” in a chat room. He masturbates furiously, in a way that seems to be a brutal release. He seems to have little awareness of intimacy, although a dim desire for it grows once he has satisfied his raw lust.
Suddenly not lacking in cash after receiving a sizeable inheritance, Donal’s first port of call is a website advertising escorts. One of them, called Courtney, has been recommended to him by an online chat room buddy. At first, he tentatively asks for an hour with her, only to be persuaded over the phone that the “full girlfriend experience” will be worth his while (and hers, financially). They meet in a restaurant, where she is surprised that he actually wants to eat. She reassures him that seduction is not necessary, but Donal orders a chicken kiev anyway. That’s where the civilized behaviour stops though. Back at his farm, Donal rapidly enjoys what he’s paid for. As Courtney says later, this is not Pretty Woman.
But the parallels are certainly there. Donal has money, albeit not on the scale of Richard Gere’s millionaire, but enough to make him of use to Courtney, whose real name is Kim. When events ensure that Kim and Donal get to know each other personally, they begin to form an ambiguous bond. Their feelings are tested and disguised because of the shadowy, theatrical business of the sex trade. Donal starts out wanting to help Kim rescue herself. He then falls for her, before ending up seeing her as a commodity.
Boiled down to its basics, Sensation is a simple story about two very different, lonely people crossing paths. It stands above this classic blueprint because of the strength of its characterisation and acting. Donal is volatile and unpredictable because of his troubled youth, and Kim is determined and twisted because of her profession. You’re never quite sure where their true loyalties lie. In this way Sensation is realistic, with its incorporation of modern themes and the lack of trust between a group of people who have recently joined forces in a backstabbing industry. However, Sensation also has many weak points. Its fringe characters are less well acted and unconvincingly drawn. The ending is rushed and more than a little predictable, and sections of the film drag. In my view, this is an excellent effort from writer/director Tom Hall. It is occasionally funny, although not to the point of laughter, and ultimately touching, despite a difficult subject matter.