Review: ‘The Last Great Wilderness’

A curious combo of Scottish road movie, black character comedy and local ritual, "The Last Great Wilderness" shows an undoubted talent at the helm in David Mackenzie. More of a calling-card than a fully realized feature, pic looks unlikely to cut much of a swathe through the B.O. wilderness.

A curious combo of Scottish road movie, black character comedy and local ritual, “The Last Great Wilderness” shows an undoubted talent at the helm in former shortsmaker David Mackenzie, although he displays an as yet uncertain control over tone. More of a calling-card than a fully realized feature, pic looks unlikely to cut much of a swathe through the B.O. wilderness, though it raises strong hopes for the helmer’s next opus, “Young Adam,” with Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton, already in postproduction.

Quirky opening is certainly promising, as introverted Charlie (Alastair Mackenzie) is strong-armed into giving a lift to Scotland to the colorful Vicente (Jonny Phillips), a half-English, half-Spanish gigolo who soon drops his phony Hispanic accent and prefers to be called Vince. After having slept with a hoodlum’s wife, Vince has to leave the country pronto; Charlie is driving to Skye, in the Scottish Highlands, to burn down the house of the pop star who stole his wife.

After Vince is unable to board his plane at a private airstrip, and their car runs out of gas, the two men end up for the night at the remote Moor Lodge, run by the taciturn Rory (David Hayman). If the stuffed birds in the lobby, a la “Psycho,” and the weird clientele weren’t giveaways, the general air of cloistered retreat hints that this is no ordinary hotel.

From putative road movie, pic now turns into a weirdo comedy as the residents reveal themselves over drinks and dinner. The owner of the house is an old woman who’s dying and is given to singing sad Celtic songs. Also on hand are Claire (Victoria Smurfit), a tightly-wound Irishwoman with a young daughter; Morag, a self-confessed sex addict in recovery; lapsed religious believer Paul (“masturbation changed my life”); and sour agoraphobe Eric.

Last to join the gathering is Magnus, the estate’s deer stalker, who has a daughter, Flora. When Vince joins him next morning for a spot of game hunting, he realizes Flora is the young blonde he had visions of while getting it on with Morag the previous night.

Though Alastair Mackenzie’s perf as Charlie is so low-key it’s almost in a separate movie, and patches of the script are way too expository, by the 50-minute mark the jury is still out on the pic, which has a kind of wonky charm. It’s in the delayed second act that the problems mount, and the tone starts to swing all ways as the two men are forced to stay on at the lodge due to four flat tires, and discover the truth of the place and its inhabitants.

Film’s faults are in the script rather than the direction, which David Mackenzie handles with professionalism. Also a plus is Simon Dennis’ widescreen lensing of the Highlands, creating a tangible sense of threat from stark, rolling hills and endless earth and sky. The characters, however, are little more than archetypes, with even Smurfit’s Claire hardly believable on her own terms. Actress gives it her best shot, and stokes up some one-way heat in a bed scene with Alastair Mackenzie, but she’s too often let down by clumsy dialogue.

The reliable Hayman has some poker-faced fun as the menacing Rory, and Phillips registers strongly as the free-wheeling Vince, but that’s about it on the acting side. Wishy-washy score by folk group the Pastels (who also cameo onscreen in an outre party scene) is the opposite of what the picture really needs.

The Last Great Wilderness

U.K.

Production

A Feature Film Co. release of a Sigma Films presentation, in association with Scottish Screen, Monkey Puzzle, Zentropa, Serious Facilities. (International sales: Feature Film Co., London.) Produced by Gillian Berrie. Executive producers, Steve McIntyre, Christopher Pigott, Laurence Gornall, Peter Aalbaek Jensen. Co-producers, Simon Cull, Sisse Graum Olsen, Angus Pigott. Directed by David Mackenzie. Screenplay, Alastair Mackenzie, Michael Tait.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Simon Dennis; editor, Jane Roberts; music, the Pastels; production designer, Tom Sayer; sound (Dolby Digital), Robert Bourke; associate producer, David Greer. Reviewed at Edinburgh Film Festival (British Galas), Aug. 20, 2002. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Discovery.) Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Alastair Mackenzie, Jonny Phillips, David Hayman, Ewan Stewart, Victoria Smurfit, Louise Irwin, John Comerford, Sheila Donald, Jane Stenson, Ford Kiernan.
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