Last Resort is a deft and moving study of displacement and self-discovery. Winner of the Best British Independent Film Award at the 2000 Edinburgh Film Festival, as well as prizes at the London, Venice, and Toronto Film Festivals, Last Resort is the first offering in this year’s Shooting Gallery Film series, which has been bringing smart, small, unusual, and unsigned movies to movie theaters near you for a couple of years now.
Last Resort sneaks up on you. Directed by Polish-born Pawel Pawlikowski and written by Rowan Joffe and Pawlikowski, the film follows the travails of a young single mother, Tanya (Dina Korzun) and her young son Artiom (Artiom Strelnikov). They arrive from Moscow at London’s Stansted Airport, expecting to see her fiance, only he never comes to fetch them. Frightened and upset at the suggestion that they be returned directly to Russia, Tanya asks for political asylum, not anticipating the result—she and Artiom are sent off to spend some 18 months in a holding area/internment camp, a desolate “resort” ominously named Stonehaven, minimally dressed up with fish’n'chips stands and evening Bingo games.
Here Tanya runs smack up against the many ways that bureaucracy defies understanding. Immediately on her arrival, she tries to use the payphone to call her missing-in-action fiance. First she must decipher how to use the phone cards (always a hassle in a country where you’re not familiar with the social codes, the machinery, or the language), then she must cue up for the only payphone in sight, along with many other lost or variously roughed-up souls. When she finally does get through, the boyfriend’s answering machine picks up, leaving her exactly nowhere.
Stonehaven certainly looks the part. Tanya and Artiom’s tiny, stark apartment looks out on a scrubby yard. Off in the distance, the surf beats listlessly against a lonely beach while clouds hang heavy in the grey sky, all captured by Ryszard Lenczewski’s delicate cinematography. Almost as soon as she arrives, Tanya’s approached by the oily Les (Lindsey Honey), who invites her to make some easy cash by “performing” for a live internet site. Though Tanya’s intrigued and a little slow on the uptake, Artiom spots the scam immediately, identifying Les and his partner as “pimps.” And it’s largely this rhythm between naive mother and streetsmart son that makes Last Resort so engaging and fresh. Unlike those many movies featuring adorable and/or wise-ass kids who cajole their ways around dopey adults, this one appears mutually respectful and supportive. How pleasant it is to watch this mother and son interact without anticipating—or, more precisely, dreading—the next cute-kid antic.
Though she’s feeling increasingly desperate, Tanya still rejects the tentative interest shown by Alfie (Paddy Considine, memorable as the menacing child-man in last year’s A Room for Romeo Brass), a local rube who runs Stonehaven’s video arcade by day and the Bingo games at night. Alfie’s a nice enough guy, but appears void of ambition or hope. Though he doesn’t specify how he came to settle in Stonehaven, he admits he came looking for a place where he could escape pressures and basically stay put. Tanya’s mystified by such a desire—she’s all about moving on, getting out of the “resort,” forgetting her no-count boyfriend (for, inevitably perhaps, it turns out that he has “changed his mind” and no longer wants to marry her), and eventually providing Artiom with material possibilities that she could never have imagined at his age.
Yet, Alfie is hard to resist, especially when he starts coming round the apartment with new paint for the walls, Chinese take-out in cartons, a TV set, and invites to the Bingo hall, where people look more or less content with their lots, or at least imagine that their immediate lots can change in an instant, with the right number. As Alfie and Tanya begin to develop a relationship, however, it becomes clear that both must make their own, separate ways, that the most important thing to come out of their mutual affection and respect is that they will grow apart. And this all makes Last Resort that very rare film, mature, insightful, and completely entrancing.