Irina Palm

Strand Releasing
Sam Garbarski/Belgium-Luxembourg-United Kingdom-Germany-France 2007

Irina Palm tells the story of a most unlikely hero and her improbably heroic self-sacrifice. In the film’s press kit, director Sam Garabaski describes his intention to produce a “non-politically-correct romantic tragicomedy,” and it’d be hard to imagine a more apt characterization of the finished product. It’d be safe to say that there’s never been a movie about an elderly widow who takes a job in a London sex club in order to pay to transport her gravely ill grandson to Australia for an operation. It’d be even safer to say that there hasn’t been one in which said widow then falls in love with the club owner.

Add Marianne Faithfull as the star and Irina Palm secures its offbeat status. Yet, Garabaski locates the film within the socially conscious, realist aesthetic perfected by Mike Leigh and his contemporaries within British cinema. The majority of the picture unfolds in two bleak locales: London’s low-rent suburbs and the red-carpet strewn sex club, with the crumbled, rusty backroom in which Maggie (Faithfull) practices her trade: manually stimulating anonymous customers through a hole in the wall. Nothing is sensationalized (the movie’s not the Eliot Spitzer story), with Garabaski going so far as to deliberately frame the masturbation scenes to avoid any male anatomy. However, the movie feels too thematically familiar, despite the unusual setting. Characters confront their repressed emotions, step out of their self-imposed shells and find themselves better off for doing so.

That makes for an affecting experience but one that’s not all that viscerally rewarding. Faithfull so deliberately subdues her theatrical personality that Maggie practically disappears. She’s so quiet and low key that it becomes impossible to get a sense of just how profoundly her future has been reformed by the events at hand. Though co-star Miki Manojlovic enlivens things a bit as the Super Mario Bros-playing club owner, the film badly needs more of his comic spirit. Everything else seems completely somnambulistic. Additionally, once one processes the picture’s original way of framing its story the restrained, predictable dramatic arc never resonates as it should. For Garabaski and screenwriters Martin Herron and Phillipe Blasband, Irina Palm represents a step in an interesting direction, but one that feels underwritten and performed.

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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