Writer and director Tom Hall’s droll and daring Irish sex comedy Sensation is the coming of age story of a timid Limerick farmer who meets a New Zealand call girl, falls in love for the first time and learns something about how the world works.

Opening with a scene where lonely, mid-twenties Donal (Domhnall Gleeson) masturbates in a field while his flock of sheep look on, bemused, Hall sets a confidently complicated tone pitched somewhere between comedy and tragedy. Returning to the farmhouse, Donal finds his widowed father dead on the stair-lift and, having buried the old man with due reverence, immediately sets about spending his inheritance on sex. Using the internet handle "sweetdick", virginal Donal books an appointment with Courtney (Luanne Gordon), a call girl in the city, who arrives on a house-call to the farm and stays the night. Smitten and sated, Donal makes breakfast the next morning as Courtney explains that she is in fact Kim, a wandering Kiwi who fell into sex work during her time in London and now works independently from an apartment in Limerick city.

Soon, Donal and Kim's relationship has moved from strictly service-client into something more enduring, and endearing. Too long living under the strict gaze of his father, whose notions of sexual relationships are medieval at best, Donal is ready to experience something of life. Flush with cash, he sees the potential when Kim explains her long-held ambition to open her own escort service. The two join forces. He sells his flock of sheep and makes plans with the local property developer Liam (Owen Roe) to unload the land while Kim goes about recruiting some young women. With Kim providing the know-how and Donal putting up the money, they rent an apartment, launch a website and wait for the customers to arrive. Donal’s only friend, the otherwise idle Karl (newcomer Patrick Ryan) volunteers to work the door, providing both the apartment and Donal with the illusion of security.
Operating as discreetly as is possible in a small community, they start receiving clients and making money but emotions soon get in the way. Having gained some gumption by his exposure to the worldly Kim, Donal is transformed into a better groomed, sharper dressed and more confident young man, no longer tongue-tied around pretty shop-assistant Melanie (Kelly Campbell) and able to stand up to Roe’s sleazy huckster as he tries to hustle him into a bad deal for the farm. But Donal’s late-arriving loss of innocence doesn’t include any instruction on how to deal with relationships and as quickly as they came together, Donal and Kim find themselves drifting apart.

“This isn’t Pretty Woman”, Kim says in a heated moment, and she’s right. Sensation isn’t a glamorised story of outlaw entrepreneurship or a how-to-guide for budding sex-workers, but rather a faintly desperate story of rural isolation and social unease, where the overriding emotion is repression and shame. What prevents the straightforward story from slipping into simplicity interesting are the superb performances from the entire cast, with Gleeson proving he can carry a movie on his own and Gordon providing a convincing mix of brittleness and sensitivity. Credibly played and intelligently scripted, Sensation is a curious film (not least because Irish cinema rarely addresses sex as a theme), but one that will reward a enquiring audience.

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