Friday, September 12, 2008

Film Review #172: Irina Palm
Director: Sam Garbarski
Cast: Marianne Faithfull, Dorka Gryllus, Miki Manojlovic

“Everybody’s always talking about how they’d do anything for their kids,” says Ollie’s mom Sarah (Siobhan Hewlett) to her husband Tom after his mother Maggie comes up with the money they need to get from suburban London to Australia. “Well, she put herself on the line for my son! And frankly, I’m grateful!”

Clearly someone who’s grown up less sheltered than only son Tom, Sarah’s first response to learning there’s a new cure for her little boy’s cancer on the other side of the globe had not been elation and relief but the often-stung realist’s question, “Who pays?”

Sarah and her mother-in-law (60s rock icon Marianne Faithfull, who last played a mother of more means as Empress Marie Theresa in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette) have evidently never been close, but the revelation of Maggie’s job in a London club called Sexy World, where she is something of a celebrity as “Irina Palm,” is an acid test the younger woman understands at once as more than a train ride away from Maggie’s sedate village life.

Three young filmmakers have recently explored the lengths to which mothers will go for their threatened sons. All feature unsentimental, complex performances and unusual attention to the dynamics among the women characters, and all use border-crossing as both story element and resonant image for life-altering choice.

Set on the Akwesasne Reserve that straddles the New York-Canada border, northern Hudson Valley director Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River features blistering portrayals by Melissa Leo and Misty Upham of two nearly broke single mothers, white and Mohawk respectively, who smuggle illegal immigrants across the mile-wide frozen St. Lawrence in an old Dodge Spirit’s trunk. Hunt’s first feature opened August 1st and is now on 26 screens nationwide. If it doesn’t come here, it’s worth driving to Rochester to see it at The Little in late September.

Turn the River, gambling slang for getting caught bluffing, is actor Chris Eigeman’s first foray into filmmaking. Famke Janssen (Jean Grey/Phoenix in The X-Men films) plays pool-hall rat Kailey Sullivan, who descends into Manhattan periodically from somewhere “upstate” for Central Park visits with her 11-year-old son. When his father breaks the boy’s wrist, Kailey aims to buy them passports via high-stakes billiards and escape to Canada. With few festival turns, little theater exposure between the May premiere and July DVD, and an unfortunate plot misstep at the end, Turn the River still deserves a look. Then, you do wonder about a movie-going nation that embraces the brilliance of a Dark Knight one week but dashes off to a mess like Tropic Thunder the next.

Which brings us back to Belgian filmmaker Sam Garbarski’s second feature, Irina Palm, doing well in almost 30 countries but not generating much box office here since opening in March with the tagline, “The best right hand in London.” It’s a mistake to dismiss Irina Palm, now out on DVD two weeks, as just the latest “naughty British granny,” though its script – especially several encounters in Maggie’s village shop, small town life’s court of public opinion – suggests potential in that comedic direction. Rather, Maggie’s journeys away from this village take on the aura of a fugitive fleeing past a border check-point.

Irina Palm is surprisingly thoughtful in appraising how we reach for one another. If we never see Maggie’s hand at work in her booth at Sexy World, we see a great deal surrounding it. And that job stays in mind throughout a film that relies visually on the physical transactions of touching. At the hospital, Maggie entwines her hand in Ollie’s, kissing the little boy’s fingers. When club owner Miki (Miki Manojlovic) interviews her for the “hostess job,” he strokes Maggie’s palm and she withdraws sharply. Later their handshake seals his loan to Maggie; still later he’ll courteously light her cigarette. A young foreigner named Luisa (Dorka Gryllus) from the next booth teaches Maggie the trade and later they share a drink and confidences – always the confidences in this film begin with lost love – that includes how Luisa left a man who struck her. When Maggie unmasks the most sanctimonious among the village widows for having slept with her late husband, Maggie adds, “I understand you liked to be spanked.” Naturally these older women have passed the time together playing cards, making Irina Palm – all three films, really – a riff on playing the hand you’re dealt.

This review appeared in the 8/28/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing recent movies that did not open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth. Irina Palm & Turn the River are both available at Netflix. Read Nancy’s interview with Frozen River director Courtney Hunt at