Red light approach to the golden years

'Irina Palm' - the film about a grandmother who becomes a sex worker is more moving than you'd think.

irina palm 8 829 (photo credit: Courtesy)
irina palm 8 829
(photo credit: Courtesy)
IRINA PALM **** Directed by Sam Garbarski. Written by Garbarski, Phillippe Blasband and Martin Herron. 103 minutes. In English, with Hebrew titles. With Marianne Faithfull, Miki Manojlovic, Kevin Bishop, Siobhan Hewlett, Dorka Gryllus, Jenny Agutter, Corey Burke, Meg Wynn Owen Any plot summary of Irina Palm would sound like a joke: It is the story of a widowed grandmother who takes control of her life by becoming a sex worker in a seamy London club. When you add the information that the granny undertakes the work to pay for medical treatment for her dying grandson and that the lady in question is played by Sixties pop singer and former Mick Jagger girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, it sounds even more absurd. But before you catalog this as a movie you definitely wouldn't want to see, you should know that Irina Palm, while not always absolutely believable, is dramatic, often very funny and, in the end, moving. Faithfull's performance is the centerpiece and she is enormously sympathetic and utterly unrecognizable as a dowdy suburban grandmother. It's the role of a lifetime and she runs with it. Faithfull plays Maggie, a lonely widow in a middle-class suburb. She has friends she plays cards with, but isn't really close to them. Her relationship to her adult son, Tom (Kevin Bishop) and his wife, Sarah (Siobhan Hewlett), is tense, but the three have joined forces to try to save Ollie (Corey Burke), Maggie's grandson, who has had cancer for years. Maggie and her family have sold their apartments and gone deep into debt to pay for treatments that have failed to help. Finally, a doctor gives them the news that Ollie will be dead within weeks unless an experimental treatment works. This last-ditch option is available only in Australia. Tom and Sarah barely have money to take the Underground, let alone fly to Australia. They are furious and turn their anger on Maggie, and each other. One of the ways in which Irina Palm is quite realistic is that it demonstrates how, unlike what TV movies and melodramas would have us believe, catastrophic illness does not tend to bring out the best in people. This aspect of the film brings to mind a wonderful recent documentary, A Lion in the House, which follows five children with cancer and their families (well worth renting or watching on television). Maggie can't accept that this is the end for Ollie, so she tries to find a job, but, not surprisingly, is unsuccessful. Wandering around Soho, she sees a "hostess required" sign at a sex club and is predictably surprised to learn that the job does not involve serving tea. When the club owner, the soft-spoken but utterly practical Mikki (Miki Manojlovic) tells her there is a job she can do there, performing one particular sex act, she is appalled and walks out, but the next day, she walks back in. Overcoming her revulsion, she quickly becomes proficient and develops a following. More important, she is earning the money she needs. This leads her son and friends to ask questions she refuses to answer, but she finds she enjoys both her newfound earning power, sense of competence, and the fact that, for the first time in her life, she is a woman of mystery. She begins to question some of the hypocrisy in her life, particularly among her friends, that she has accepted for years. Most bizarrely, she finds herself developing a real connection to Mikki. The story, which has a certain fable-like quality, works best if you can accept the somewhat sanitized version it presents of the sex industry. While it doesn't shy away from presenting the details of Maggie's work (although it shows this with almost no nudity), there are no trafficked women here, and Mikki pays everyone her wages, fair and square. Although some may find what goes on at the sex club morally repugnant, it is not exploitative. Director Sam Garbarski gets away with this because Miki Manojlovic is so compelling in his role. Manojlovic, an actor from Belgrade best known for his work with Emir Kusturica in such films as Underground, Black Cat, White Cat and When Father Was Away on Business, makes us believe that a man surrounded by gorgeous, young strippers could come to care for Maggie. His performance makes it plausible that Maggie could truly be herself with the people in this unfamiliar world and could come to prefer it to her former life. The scenes in which she confronts her snooty friends are a bit too schematic and threaten to derail the movie, but Garbarski's storytelling talent takes the film quickly past this weak patch. The acting is uniformly excellent. Dorka Gryllus is touching and appealing as a colleague who befriends Maggie, while Kevin Bishop is right on target in the often unlikable role as Maggie's son. Jenny Agutter, first seen on screen as an adolescent beauty in The Railway Children and Walkabout in the Sixties and Seventies, is all sharp edges as one of Maggie's judgmental friends. Meg Wynn Owen, who was Hazel on Upstairs, Downstairs, plays another friend. In the end, Irina Palm is one of those movies that is greater than the sum of its parts. Its implausible aspects detract very little from its emotional power, strong story and top-notch acting.