“Northwest Passage” and “The Sessions” at Martha’s Vineyard theaters


Sail Martha’s Vineyard is collaborating with the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society to show “Northwest Passage – On Franklin’s Trail,” a documentary about the lost expedition of English adventurer Sir John Franklin and the search for his remains. Preceded by a wine and cheese reception, the movie will play on Thursday, Dec. 6, at the M.V. Film Center.

“The Sessions,” a charming romantic comedy that narrates the struggles of an iron lung patient to lose his virginity, is screening at Entertainment Cinemas in Edgartown on Tuesday, Dec. 4, and Thursday, Dec. 6, and at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center on Friday, Dec. 7, and Saturday, Dec. 8.

“Northwest Passage” updates a piece of maritime history that has long fascinated sailors and many others. Explorer Sir John Franklin left England in 1845 with 128 men and two schooners, determined to find a water link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The ships became icebound near King William Island in the Canadian Arctic, and eventually all hands died trying to reach civilization. Multiple efforts followed to determine what happened to the expedition in an era long before modern forms of communication were possible.

Filmed by Irish director John Murray in 2001, “Northwest Passage” won Best Film on Mountain Environments at the 2003 Banff Mountain Film Festival. The documentary was not available for review, but Sail Martha’s Vineyard members say it chronicles a modern-day Irish expedition to track Sir Franklin’s voyage into regions of the Arctic that had never been explored.

“The Sessions” narrates a very different kind of adventure. John Hawkes plays 36-year-old Mark O’Brien, who has been confined to an iron lung since contracting polio at the age of six. A charismatic fellow based on a real person, Mark yearns to develop an intimate relationship with a woman.

This desire creates a conundrum over sex outside of marriage for the committed Roman Catholic, and he shares his feelings with Father Brendan, played by William H. Macy. Deciding that God will give this severely disabled man a pass, the priest tells him, “Go for it.” The sequence of events that follows is eye-opening and often funny.

Salvation comes for Mark in the form of sex therapist/surrogate Cheryl, played with aplomb and professionalism by Helen Hunt. Starting with body awareness exercises, Cheryl strips down and coaches Mark in the art of lovemaking. Unlike the movie “Starlet,” which crosses the line into pornography or comes perilously close to it in its use of graphic nudity and sexual behavior, “The Sessions” incorporates nudity and sexual acts in justifiable and natural ways.

Not only does the film inform viewers about what sex therapy with a surrogate involves, it also helps enlighten them about how the handicapped cope with their sexual needs. The screenplay treats a challenging subject with delicacy and compassion, and a strong cast keeps the movie on track.

As played by Mr. Macy, Father Brendan serves effectively as Mark’s confidante. He’s a priest who is very much his own man – not simply a mouthpiece for Church doctrine. As Cheryl’s husband Josh, Adam Arkin adds unexpected insights, and Rhea Perlman plays her usual humorous self in a cameo. But the laurels go to Ms. Hunt and Mr. Hawkes, whose convincing and appealing portrayals bring “The Sessions” to life with humor and affection.

“Northwest Passage – On Franklin’s Trail,” Thursday, Dec. 6, 7:30 pm. Wine and cheese reception begins at 6:30 pm, M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $15 benefits benefit Sail MV. For reservations, call 508-696-7644 or email sail_MV@verizon.net.