PARK CITY 2001 REVIEW: Bleak House; Gritty "Last Resort" is World Cinema Standout
by Andy Bailey
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Andy Bailey reviewed the Sundance World Cinema film "Last Resort" during the Venice Film Festival.]
Few films on the Lido this year managed to transport audiences into a collective state of rapture. No one has levitated from his seat in religious ecstasy or wept so intensely as to induce aneurysm. Sure, the Italians went mad for "Small Time Crooks" and the American media and film biz cognoscenti embraced Lukas Moodysson's quirky commune dramedy "Together." Everyone seemed to agree that Julian Schnabel's "Before Night Falls" would go on to win festival prizes and enchant art-house audiences around the world. But on the penultimate day of the 57th Venice Film Festival -- when grizzled festival-goers were least expecting it -- a 75-minute gem from Britain called "The Last Resort" emerged as this year's undisputed Venetian swoon. The gritty BBC production, screening as part of Venice' Cinema of the Present sidebar and in Toronto's Contemporary World Cinema section, garnered major acclaim at last month's Edinburgh Film Festival where its director won Best British Newcomer.
Shot in cinema verite style by Ryszrd Lenczewski, in washed-out, muted colors recalling the darkest days of Thatcherism, the bleak, micro-budgeted drama should by all rights not have been a crowd pleaser. But writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski, working with the doc division of BBC Films, has created a winsome screen heroine in Tanya, a Russian &etilde;migr&etilde; (played by irresistible newcomer Dina Korzun) who arrives in London with her 10-year-old son Artiom (Artiom Strelnikov) only to discover that her cold-feet British fianc&etilde; is nowhere to be found. In a fit of desperation Tanya requests political asylum, instantly thrusting her into a bureaucratic nightmare of forms, queues, meal vouchers and contempt. Relocated to a deserted seaside resort called Dreamland, Tanya and Artiom become part of a refugee community relegated to "designated holding areas" within a miserable high-rise council estate where rampaging kids peddle used appliances and black market vodka through its cyclone-fence perimeter. It's a modern-day concentration camp, right down to the surveillance cameras and predatory guards.
Tanya tries to find work -- she's hired by a sleazy cybersex mogul (Lindsey Honey) to perform soft porn acts over the Internet -- until a kindly video arcade manager named Alfie (Paddy Considine, in another winning performance) offers his assistance. A self-confessed undesirable, Alfie takes streetwise-beyond-his-years Artiom under his wing and redecorates Tanya's squalid apartment. He's obviously smitten, though Tanya's hesitant to trust another suitor -- "I think she loves men who make her cry," Artiom tells Alfie in broken English, in the film's most heart wrenching moment. Later in the film Tanya tells Alfie she once wrote children's books for a living, a devastating admission when you consider how many millions U.K. author and single mom J.K. Rowling has earned from the Harry Potter books.
There's a touch of wide-eyed Emily Watson in Dina Korzun's Tanya, not to mention shades of "Breaking the Waves" in the movie itself, though Pawlikowski isn't after cheap hand-held melodramatics and heart-tugging pathos -- he's a committed documentary filmmaker who has tried (with unqualified success here) to inject his social realism with a more genuine narrative thrust. He's peppered "The Last Resort" with Loach-like scenes depicting the mindless leisure of the bingo hall or the noxious funk of the fish-and-chips shop, which makes the film feel like something of an empty shell. The other film it recalls is "Stranger Than Paradise," with its wide-open spaces and immigrant's soul burn.
But the characters in Pawilowski's film are so credible; their situations so convincingly wrought that it manages to transcend its chilly veneer with remarkable ease. Part of this was undoubtedly due to the unique shooting structure of the film. Pawlikowski started the project without a proper script. Scenes and dialogue grew out of workshops with the actors held prior to filming. Several scenes emerged spontaneously during the chronological shoot and -- as in David Gordon Green's majestic indie discovery "George Washington" --cast and crew slept and ate under one roof during the entire production. Communal living may have been the downfall of Lukas Moodysson's hand-held heart-stirrer "Together" -- the only other film at Venice that elicited such an elated audience response -- but it clearly worked wonders on the discovery that is "The Last Resort."