Running Time: 99 minutes
Rated: Rated MA 15+ (strong sexual activity, strong sexual references)
This is a tender film. Marianne Faithful carries the role of Maggie - stage name 'Irena Palm' - she of the soft hands; soft heart, with stunning poise. Clad in her Char apron, locked away in the small ugly work room with a hole in the wall, she masturbates men for money, so as to pay for the medical treatment of her grandson. There is, surprisingly, no vulgarity, no visible male genitalia; the camera focusing mostly on Maggie's face when she is working. The film's Director, Sam Garbarski, argues that, though this may feel like an English film, it is better understood, he says, as a film in English, in England. Its production is pan-European; originally it was in French and to be filmed in Belgium. The Berlin International Film Festival awarded 'Irena Palm' the Golden Berlin Bear. It also won the Reader Jury prize of the Berliner Morgenpost this year, 2007.
Filmed with gritty realism and to a back beat of heavy, thudding music, the tragicomedy unravels in a clutter of grey footpaths, identical council houses and crowded downtown Soho. The colourless empty world of the suburbs counterpoints with 'Sexyworld', which reveals itself behind a purple, spangly curtain. Maggie, desperate to earn the money, and having been rejected by everyone as too old and useless, walks through the curtain following an advert about 'Hostess Wanted'. She finds herself in a place she could never ever have imagined herself. The Nightclub Manager, Miki, played by Miki Manojlovic, realizing he has another species altogether in front of him, explains in a wry Head Masterly moment that 'Hostess' is a euphemism for something else. But, he is captivated by Maggie's innocent, fumpiness and so discovers the soft hands. She is offered the job.
'Sexyworld' is shot through with an underworld glamour of desperation. Single, lonely men served by nubile barstaff, watch girls winding around poles in nothing but g-strings and Santa hats. As Maggie's talent and fame grow, Miki gives her the stage name of 'Irena Palm' and men queue up for the barren booth from which they receive her ministrations. There is, ironically, something direct about the relationships here, as distinct from those with her prurient suburban friends and helpless family. Maggie makes friends at the Club, establishes trust and sympathy with Miki and comes to believe herself worthwhile. The old Maggie, treated contemptuously by her son and daughter-in-law as they sleep or bicker exhaustedly around their son's hospital bedside, and as boring and useless by her 'friends', becomes quietly assertive. She even takes up smoking again.
The emotional heart of the film is the sick bed, where the small boy, Olly, (Cory Burke), eyes bruised and sunken in pain, suffers in silence. His grandma is the only one capable of connecting with him. She holds him together with the love that brings life. And the moral heart of the film is the generosity of the gift she eventually gives him. The revelation of the gift (of money) brings a cataclysm of truth telling. Maggie's daughter-in-law, Sarah, (Siobahn Hewlett), previously coldly indifferent, melts into admiration for Maggie's strength and purpose. Her son, Kevin, (Kevin Bishop), initially outraged, accuses her of being a 'whore'. Maggie forces him to reconfigure and upgrade his concept of mothering. And Maggie's old friends are agape. Stung by Jane, (Jenny Agutter), one of her oldest friends who accuses her of being 'boring', she reveals exactly what she is doing and why she wears a sling: 'Penis Elbow!' she says triumphantly, and leaves the house. In front of the gawping local shoppers Maggie exposes Jane, whose kinky affair with Maggie's husband she had held secret for twenty years. In this way, the concept of scandal is pushed aside and the community is forced to judge itself.
In a sex saturated world, the film puts a new twist on 'sex worker' and the roles people play. It is funny and tender to see Maggie: old, thick bodied, firmly coated and booted, with ugly handbag dangling, walk through the purple door and become someone else's fantasy. She has spent her life as a 'nobody'; taken utterly for granted. Even her husband found someone else to satisfy his sexual fantasies. But by the end of the film her charity and sacrifice have saved Olli, she has reinvented herself and even won the tough/tender heart of Miki. The final frame, shot with irony against the backdrop of the Strip Club, has Maggie, suitcase in hand, proffering him a stiff and awkward kiss.
Mrs Jenny MacMillan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting