There are films (mostly independent films) that, by their very nature, come across in their boiled-down form as tough films to endure: "A man falls in love with a sex doll." "A Colombian immigrant serves as a drug mule to New York." "A school is terrorized by two youths on a killing rampage." These pitches feel cold, clammy, ruinous and grim. And yet, those films -- Lars and the Real Girl, Maria Full of Grace and Elephant, in the examples given above -- are so much more than those simplistic summaries, and reward those bold enough to seek them out despite their off-putting one-line plot capsules. Irina Palm, opening today in limited release, is another example of the above phenomenon. If I tell you that Irina Palm revolves around a woman in her mid-50's who becomes a sex worker, you will most probably recoil from the very thought of the film. And yet, Irina Palm -- anchored by a sincere, wrenching performance by Marianne Faithfull in the lead role -- is so much more than that, and those with the courage to seek it out will benefit from their boldness. Faithfull plays Maggie, a mother and grandmother facing the ugly facts surrounding her grandson Oliver's illness. Ollie (Corey Burke) is dying; time is running out. An experimental clinic in Australia may save him, but while the treatment is free, the family still has to get there. Maggie's son Tom (Kevin Bishop) and daughter-in-law Sarah (Siobahn Hewlett) have spent every penny already; Maggie's out of money as well. And so Maggie goes to the world, to banks and employment agencies, where a succession of polished young people who could not conceive of her need tell her the facts: She can't borrow money, and she can't make it.
But a club in Soho has an ad out front as Maggie passes -- "Hostess Required Excellent Rates" -- and Maggie goes in to apply. The manager, Miki (Miki Manojlovic) asks if she knows what she's doing there: "Do you know what goes on here? Do you know what a hostess does?" Maggie's hesitant: "Sort of." He fires back: "What sort of 'sort of?'" Miki explains that Maggie will be working -- in no uncertain terms -- as a whore, providing manual relief to male customers who thrust themselves through a 'glory hole' in a wall of one of the club's back rooms, while, in the other room, Maggie will bring them to release. She seems shocked. He seems proud, surveying the set-up: "Nobody else has something like this but Sexy World. Nobody but me." The work is too hideous to contemplate. And the money is too real to turn down.
Directed by Sam Garbarski, Irina Palm (Maggie's pseudonym at her job) isn't about sex; it's about money, and about power. When she's receiving on-the-job training, Maggie's shocked, but her co-worker Luisa (Dorka Gryllus) explains something to her: "Remember; you are in control." After her first shift, Maggie is left washing her hands over and over again like Lady Macbeth; she's also 200 Pounds richer. It is ugly work. And she can do it.
In time, Maggie's trips from the suburbs inspire curiosity from her family and friends; her work in the city inspires a fierce and loyal following of men who have never seen her. Maggie is invisible, sexless, unvalued; Irina is worthy of obsession, sensual, coveted and compensated. And in time, being Irina changes who Maggie is. Comparisons to Maria Full of Grace are inevitable -- a powerless woman, forced to do the unthinkable, discovers a certain power she never had before -- and they're not undeserved.
Faithfull's performance is the centerpiece of the film, and it is a truly impressive piece of work. Faithfull may moved through the years (as have we all, as will we all) but she still has the poise and power that made her a cause célèbre in the '60s. Her voice is still a thing of wonder -- like smoke-cured velvet -- and her acting choices make every scene tick and thrum with a sense of possibility. Screenwriters Martin Herron and Phillipe Blasband haven't just written a movie about a character, though; they've written a film about a world, one with the same grim comedy (or laughable banality) we all face. Maggie, once she gets down to it, is doing assembly-line factory work -- or, rather, a variation on it that pays better than the factory jobs that she couldn't get even if they existed anymore. She feuds with co-workers; she can't believe management's attitude; she even gets repetitive strain injuries. It's a job, like any other. And unlike any other.
And when Maggie steps out of her booth onto the floor of the club -- disappearing into a red-light blur of writhing young women and the throb of bad techno music -- it's a reminder of the ugly link between money and lust, of the disconnect between fantasy and reality, between the things we must do and the things we never thought we would. Or, as Sarah puts it: "Most people say they'd do anything for their kids. ..." What happens when you have to back that up?
Irina Palm isn't shy about what Maggie's doing for her work, but it doesn't overplay its hand, either; camerawork and props shield us from a full view of the industrial process, but we know full well exactly what Maggie's doing for her family and for her grandson, and how that's changing her. I initially resisted Irina Palm, the brute blunt facts of its synopsis at the forefront of my mindI went to see the film; within 10 minutes, I was looking past the salacious, simplistic bare bones of the storyline and appreciating the colors and shading and notes that spun out of that simple, startling idea. Irina Palm is about the ugly business of money, of living, of keeping promises, of not giving up -- and thanks to careful direction, superb writing and finely-tuned performances, it transcends its own plot to succeed as a truly impressive drama.