director : Pawel Pawlikowski
script : Pawlikowski, Rowan Joffe
cinematography : Ryszard Lenczewski
editing : David Charrup
music : Max de Wardener
lead actors : Dina Korzun, Paddy Considine, Artiom Streliakov, Linday Honey
Why can’t there be more films like Last Resort? Films that take an important, fiercely topical subject, then dramatise it a way that seems effortlessly simple: straightforward, strong script; straightforward, strong performances; straightforward, strong direction. What could be easier? There should be half a dozen of these coming out of every major film-making country in the world every year, but cinema doesn’t seem to have developed that way, unfortunately. Or perhaps ‘tragically’ would be nearer the mark. In any case, it’s dispiritingly rare to come across such a powerful and necessary use of celluloid. There’s barely a wasted frame in these 73 (73!!!) economical minutes: every image seems imbued with passion, intelligence, anger.
The resort in question is Margate – renamed ‘Stonehaven’ in the script, but prominently mentioned in the end credits. Not that it’s likely to do much for the tourist trade: Last Resort presents the town as almost unremittingly bleak, a gulag for drop-outs and misfits, and a ‘holding area’ for ‘asylum seekers’ who’ve arrived via the ferry port at nearby Dover, or Heathrow airport. Under the Labour government’s “dispersal” programme, such would-be immigrants are prevented from making their way to London, and instead sent to various far-flung corners of the country while their applications are processed – a bureaucratic marathon that, in most cases, drags on for over a year.
The film follows one such ‘asylum seeker’ (a classic example of governmental doublespeak, much like the reclassification of ‘unemployment benefit’ as ‘jobseekers’ allowance’) – Muscovite thirtysomething Tanya (Korzun), who lands at Heathrow with her young-teenager son Artiom (Strelnikov) expecting to be greeted by her fiance. When the fiance fails to show, a distraught Tanya impulsively claims asylum and mother and son end up in a high-rise flat in ‘Stonehaven,’ living on a meagre food-coupon allowance and dreaming of escape. Desperate for cash, she drifts into a seedy cyber-sex video operation run by Les (Honey), and things only start to look up when bingo-caller Alfie (Considine) arrives on the scene, determined to improve Tanya and Artiom’s lot.
If the film has a serious weakness, it’s that the plot pivots on how awful Les’s sleazy enterprise is supposed to be. But Les (a surprising performance from a legendary actor previously best known for starring in ‘adult’ videos under the nom-de-porn ‘Ben Dover’) isn’t as loathsome as he initially appears – if anything, he’s even mildly sympathetic, treating Tanya fairly reasonably. There’s no actual sex involved, and Les never resorts to high-pressure techniques or anything approaching violence. But Artiom and Alfie react as though he’s luring Tanya into vile prostitution, leading to some melodramatic developments late on which sit very awkwardly with the film’s prevailing tone of convincing, low-key realism.
Then again, this is only Pawlikowski’s second film, and what a startling new talent he clearly is. He’s got an obvious eye for composition of shots and the use of light, but never makes a big deal of it, instead concentrating on the interplay of characters and their environment. Strelnikov’s forceful turn as Artiom, meanwhile, ensures Pawlikowski easily passes that handy litmus test for directors, namely the handling of juvenile talent. While it seems unfair to isolate one performance in particular, Considine deserves nothing less. In sharp contrast to his ‘audition piece’ mannerisms in A Room For Romeo Brass, he giving Alfie’s every word, gesture and action an eerily convincing spontaneity.
Pawlikowski clearly intends to make Margate as grim as we in Britain would imagine Tanya’s homeland to be, and he certainly succeeds. This is a depressingly recognisable portrait of a nightmarish situation unfolding on our very doorsteps, shining a light on a problem which, if current indications are any guide (this review is being written in the week of the Australian/Indonesian refugee fiasco), will get much worse before it gets any better. It’s hard to imagine anyone leaving the cinema after seeing Last Resort without a burning sense of indignation and outrage at the way rich, powerful western countries treat those less fortunate than themselves. It should be compulsory viewing for anyone in any position of power regarding asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants – or any kind of people in need.
Four days after seeing Last Resort, I was talking with a middle-aged reactionary who, on learning I lived in Sunderland (like Margate, a ‘dispersal’ point) started banging on about how cushy things were for asylum seekers. To counteract her “argument,” I referred to scenes from Pawlikowski’s film: yes, I told her, they do get food vouchers, but they can only be used in certain overpriced outlets which don’t give change. And, as the heartbreakingly tough Artiom finds to his disgust when he inspects the food, there’s no fish in the fish and chips. It’s all just batter.
Tuesday 4th September, 2001
(seen Aug-28-01: UCI, MetroCentre, Gateshead)