Sunday, May 11, 2008
Maggie's grandson Olly (Corey Burke) is stricken with some unspecified but life-threatening disease. All attempts to cure him have failed but there's one last hope. If he can travel to Australia within the next couple weeks, there's a medical procedure that could save his life. Of course the boy's parents can't afford it so Maggie, who's already sold her home to pay for the boy's medical expenses, is determined to figure out a way to help. She's turned down for a variety of jobs since she's never really worked before. Then she happens upon a sign in a window that says "Hostess Wanted." She applies, thinking it will involve making tea. But the establishment in is the midst of Soho's red light district and it happens to be a strip club called Sex World.
The unlikely romance of Miki and Maggie in Irina Palm (Strand Releasing)
Owner Miki (Serbian actor Miki Manojlovic in an oddly likable performance) explains quite bluntly that he's looking for someone to masturbate male customers who insert their penises through holes in a wall. Maggie is appalled, until Mikky promises a weekly salary equivalent to about $800 to $1000. That combined with the fact that no one will actually see her prompts her to accept the job. The surprise is she proves to be quite adept at her job and soon the line of customers for Irina Palm (her sex worker pseudonym) grows impressively large. Needless to say her occupation proves shocking to her son and to her stuffy women friends.
The film is an odd mix of Calendar Girls and Vera Drake . From Calendar Girls it takes the notion of older women rediscovering their sexuality and from Vera Drake it takes the idea of an older, very matter of fact British woman who simply does what she thinks is right. In the case of Vera Drake , it was a kind woman who ended up performing abortions because she thought she was helping young girls who needed a way out of desperate situations. And in the case of Maggie, it's jerking men off so that her grandson can get the medical care he needs. In both cases the women seem unlikely candidates for the things that they do, and they are able to separate what they do from who they are. (But note that Vera Drake was a far superior film.) & Once Maggie starts her job, she treats it as if it were any job -- like waiting tables or cleaning toilets. It's just work. Maggie brightens up the drab dungeon of a room she works in with flowers and family pictures, and she wears a frumpy floral apron as she services her clients. If the men saw what she looked like, I'm not sure they ever would have given her a chance and they never would have discovered what wonderful hands she has.
The film revolves around one central idea: the contradiction between Maggie and her job. That's really it, and that's not enough to sustain an entire film. The reliance on this sinlge incongruity to constantly drive the plot means that the film has to work very hard to try and find ways to extend it. So rather than come up with a simple lie about where the money comes from, Maggie acts very secretive and arouses the suspicion of her son, who then follows her to work and is aghast to see his mother enter a sex club. Maybe we are to assume that Maggie wants to be found out , that she wants her secret life to be exposed. That would actually be interesting. And Maggie does seem to take pleasure in shocking her snooty bridge ladies by revealing why she's been missing their get-togethers. At one point she rubs her sore arm and goes out of her way to describe it as "penis elbow." She seems barely able to contain a smile when there's a stunned moment of silence. But I don't think director Sam Garbarski and writers Martin Herron and Philippe Blasband have intended to make Maggie complex in that way. Instead, they just create inconsistencies that make the film sputter rather than flow.
The main problem, though, is one of tone. The fact that the little boy is gravely ill casts a somber shadow over the film, yet Maggie's story is actually a bright one that could have used a more humorous approach. Maggie gains both a confidence and a sense of independence that she never had while she was married. The film is a journey of self-discovery for Maggie and she even allows for a bit of romance to slip into her life as Miki starts to show an interest in her. But director Garbarski keeps the visuals painfully drab and seems to think he's making a grim piece of social realism. That tone brings the film down and prevents it from developing much energy even though Maggie goes through a major rebirth that deserves some celebration.
There's also the problem of Olly's and his mystery disease. Olly's an obvious plot device to set the whole story in motion. But after Michael Moore's Sicko went to great pains to show us how England's national health care systen takes such good care of its citizens, it's odd that so little of Olly's medical care is covered and that the family is turned down for services. Part of this may be because the film was not originally set in England and none of the film's makers could figure out a more plausible way to provoke Maggie's desperate job search. But poor Olly exists more as a contrivance than a fully fleshed out character and that hurts the film.
Irina Palm (rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and language) is a showcase for Faithfull but it never truly allows her to shine.