'Irina Palm' predictable but heartfelt

Ed Symkus

Though she’s been acting regularly for about 40 years — a TV show here, a small film there — Marianne Faithfull will always be best known as Mick Jagger’s former girlfriend, as the songstress who had a hit with “As Tears Go By” before the Stones did, and as a burned-out heroin junkie and alcoholic who successfully battled her demons in the 1980s.

In “Irina Palm,” her first starring role, she plays Maggie, a sad woman who can’t get her long-dead husband out of her mind. But she carries on, getting by with a little help from her friends, her married son Tom and his less-than-friendly wife, Sarah. Maggie has a special place in her heart for her grandson Ollie, so she’s devastated when he gets sick and starts deteriorating in a London hospital. His last chance for survival is a procedure that can only be done in Australia. Alas, even though it would be free, there’s no money for travel and hotel.

What to do, wonders Maggie, who can’t believe that death might visit her family again. Faithfull does some great work in these moments of anguish. Though she has a fair share of dialogue, she really impresses with her ability to convey so much through facial expressions.

Stumbling upon a sign that says “hostess wanted,” she goes on in without even looking at the name of the establishment. By the time it’s revealed to viewers that she’s entered Sexy World, a “club for gentlemen,” she’s seated in an office, talking with the very proper, very German owner Miki (Miki Manojlovic), who straightforwardly tells her that the word “hostess” is a euphemism for the word “whore.”

Again, Faithfull’s face tells the story. She’s confused when Miki asks to touch her hands — which he refers to as the “right kind of hands,” meaning very soft.

Desperation, of course, causes people to do desperate things. If the money for passage to Australia isn’t raised within six weeks, Ollie will be too weak to travel, and will simply fade away. So with that clock ticking, and a melancholy guitar score in the background, Maggie says yes to her new job.

She’s brought to a drab back room and shown the ropes. We won’t go into the uncomfortable details here, but let’s just say this is a hands-on business, even though Maggie may never see the faces of her clients.

It sure is seedy, but things are kept relatively proper with discreet camera angles that don’t show us anything we really don’t want to see, similar to the way the “naughty bits” were covered up in the first Austin Powers film.

Later on, Maggie becomes fascinated by her hands, thinking to herself, “Are these really mine? Am I really doing this?”

Customers are now lining up for some time with Maggie, because the word gets around about her “artistry.” Miki tells her she can make more money if she uses a catchy stage name, hence the film’s title.

This all sounds a little grim, and yes, much of it is. But there’s some well-placed humor: a shot of her reading a magazine while “working”; a doctor’s announcement that she has developed the equivalent of tennis elbow. There’s also a sense of danger: Miki is the type of guy who will do you a favor, then threaten to kill you if you don’t do one in return.

Of course, Maggie’s job is kept secret from everyone, even when Tom demands to know where her gift of a huge pile of money has come from. The film’s subject may be unconventional, but there’s a somewhat predictable formula to the way it’s told. But its exploration of all kinds of interpersonal relationships — with friends and family, not with customers — is heartfelt and believable.

Grade: B

Rated R. “Irina Palm” has nudity and strong sexual content and language.