Rock icon Marianne Faithfull stars in “Irina Palm” as a mousey woman who takes a job in a sex club to pay for emergency medical treatment for her grandson. Tonally all over the place, pic is built around a would-be humorous script, but jiggery lensing and gloomy lighting suggest helmer Sam Garbarski (“The Rashevski Tango”) is under some delusion that he’s making a slice of gritty realism with romantic undertones. Astonishingly, pic reaped hearty guffaws at Berlinale press show, suggesting this might play best in Europe, but Anglophone auds are more likely to give “Palm” the thumbs down.
Widowed Maggie (Marianne Faithfull) has sold her home in her small English village to pay for extra medical care for her 10-year-old grandson Olly (Corey Burke), who’s dying of an unspecified disease. Her son Tom (Kevin Bishop) and daughter-in-law Sarah (Siobhan Hewlett) desperately want to fly Olly to Australia for a last-chance medical procedure but can’t afford it.
While wandering through Soho, one of London’s preeminent red-light districts, Maggie enters strip bar Sex World to ask about a job advertised in their window for a “hostess,” thinking it would involve cleaning up and making tea. Owner Miklos (Serbian thesp Miki Manojlovic, from Kusturica’s “When Father Was Away on Business”) explains he’s actually looking for someone to masturbate customers who stick their organs through holes in a wall.
Maggie is too tempted by the promised weekly wage of £400-£600 (approximately $800-$1,100) not to give it a try. She proves to be a dab hand, as it were, at the job, and under the pseudonym “Irina Palm” she soon builds up an eager clientele whom she services, unseen by them, while wearing an apron in a cubby hole she subsequently cozies up with pictures from home and a vase of plastic flowers — one of pic’s better gags.
When she gets a hefty loan from Miklos to give Tom and Sarah for the Australian trip, they’re naturally curious about where the money came from, but Maggie keeps quiet. Nor will she tell her busybody village friends, led by Jenny Agutter’s snooty Jane, what exactly is keeping her away from their regular bridge nights.
Some auds will wonder why Maggie doesn’t just think up a plausible lie for the folks back home. Then again, plot is full of unexplained puzzles, like why has the family needs to raise money when the U.K.’s national health service provides care for serious diseases for free, albeit with bad food. Such details betray script’s origins as a continent-set story, hastily reset in Britain when financing was found in Blighty.
Script credited to Martin Herron and Philippe Blasband might have worked better in different hands and at least produced, with a few better jokes, yet another mildly bawdy, TV-friendly Britcom along the lines of “Calendar Girls” or “Kinky Boots.” Unfortunately, Garbarski’s helming is too leaden and po-faced, while Faithfull, never the most expressive of actresses, performs like she’s on heavy medication, never varying her delivery and barely altering her facial expression.
Monotonous guitar score by Ghinzu, which sounds like a reject from a bad recent Wim Wenders film, adds to the load of woes. Framing contrives to keep any genitals out of view, making for easier certification.