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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 7, No. 1, 2008
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Robert J. Lewis
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In This World
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Shake Hands with the Devil
Born into Brothels
The Edukators
Big Sugar
A Long Walk
An Inconvenient Truth
Sisters In Law
Send a Bullet
Banking on Heaven
Chinese Botanist's Daugher
Ben X
La Zona
The Legacy

Sam Gabarski's


reviewed by



Irina Palm played at the 2007 Montreal World Film Festival. Philippa Hawker, who writes for The Age, gave the film 3 out of 5 stars.

Over the past couple of weekends, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image screened a retrospective of works by filmmaker Peter Whitehead, whose camera captured and created some intriguing aspects of 1960s counter-culture. Among them was a film clip he shot for a Rolling Stones song called “We Love You,” released in 1967 just after Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had been arrested and sentenced on drug charges, then had their jail terms quashed on appeal.

The Stones were depicted re-enacting the trial of Oscar Wilde. Among the figures in the clip is an elegant, androgynous Marianne Faithfull, in a black men's suit and white ruffled shirt, a carnation in her buttonhole, playing Bosie to Jagger's Oscar. She's a blank-faced yet defiant figure who challenges authority by her very presence.

Marianne Faithful as Irina PalmForty years on, the Faithfull that we see in her new film, Irina Palm, is a very different kind of transgressive figure, yet curiously her undemonstrative blankness is again her strength.

In this European co-production -- written by Philippe Blasband, Sam Gabarski and Martin Herron and directed by Gabarski -- Faithfull plays Maggie, a withdrawn, drab, middle-aged English widow whose world has narrowed down to the most limited of routines. Her emotional life revolves around her young grandson, Ollie (Corey Burke), who is in hospital: he has a life-threatening illness for which there is little hope apart from an expensive treatment available only in Australia.

Maggie insists to her son (Kevin Bishop), Ollie's father, that she will raise the money. On a trip to London, looking for work, she finds herself in Soho, looking at a sign in a window that says "Hostess wanted". She makes her way downstairs, where she is interviewed by the owner of a sex club, a polite, sceptical, middle-aged East European man, Mikki (Miki Manojlovic).

Yet he sees something in her, glimpses potential in her smooth hands, and offers her work. He has a new service to offer in his club, he says, an innovative, efficient way of giving his customers sexual relief. He shows her what's required. Maggie sits on one side of the wall, a row of clients on the other: there's a hole between them. She will be anonymous, unseen. She's naive, uncertain, but also desperate. And, as it turns out, she is a natural: her touch works wonders, and clients return in droves.

Maggie, who hangs some nice pictures on her side of the wall to make herself feel at home, knows that her son would be devastated if he discovered how she was raising the money for her grandson. But she is not completely isolated and begins to develop a sympathetic relationship with Mikki, deftly portrayed by Manojlovic as a man who is a mixture of courtly charm and jaded professionalism.

Irina Palm could potentially take any number of directions. It juggles with our expectations, but it is, at its heart, a fairytale, a story of tasks and miracles. It is drably shot and has calculatedly ponderous moments, but there is also a light-heartedness and comic warmth to it. In an odd way, it is a film that belongs in the tradition of Calendar Girls and Educating Rita, a story of older women stepping into new roles, defying conventions, taking risks, thumbing their noses at authority or the Establishment or expectations. The setting is darker, seedier, murkier: the taboos are greater, the potential for humiliation and danger more clearly established. But it is the kind of movie that provides one of Britain's theatrical dames with a leading role.

It might be tempting to wonder how a dame would have played it, but there's no doubt that Faithfull -- who has taken supporting roles in a range of movies, from the downbeat Intimacy to the extravagant Marie Antoinette -- brings a curious strength to the film. There's a kind of blankness to her performance, a substantial sense of restraint and awkwardness. She walks evasively into the frame, as if daring people to notice her. The character is restrained and repressed, and Faithfull plays her as if teetering on the edge of somnambulance, in a way that proves strangely effective -- in this context, a wry comment or a gesture of quiet defiance are almost confronting. It's a disarming performance in a disarming film.


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