The Last Witness, 2018.
Directed by Piotr Szkopiak.
Starring Alex Pettyfer, Talulah Riley, Robert Wieckiewicz, Will Thorp, Gwilym Lee, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, and Michael Gambon.
Journalist Stephen Underwood uncovers a conspiracy on an international scale – the Katyn massacre – when he begins investigating the unusually high rate of suicides among Polish veterans resettled in England after the Second World War.
From the writing team of Paul Szambowski and Piotr Szkopiak, and directed by Szkopiak, comes The Last Witness, a film examining the cover-up of the 1940 Katyn massacre in Poland. For years, Allied forces were reluctant to publicly blame the Soviet Union for the murder of up to 22,000 Polish officers following Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland from the west and Soviet occupation in the east, lest tensions flare again (and further) in the aftermath of World War Two.
The Last Witness takes place in England’s West Country in 1947, where local journalist Stephen Underwood’s (Alex Pettyfer) interest has been piqued by the gruesomely large number of suicides being reported in the resettled – and largely veteran – Polish community. His editor (a curmudgeonly Michael Gambon) is disinterested in his pitch. However, upon further investigation, and with the help of his serving officer lover Jeanette (Talulah Riley) and Polish Colonel Januzs Pietrowski (an appealing and sympathetic Will Thorp), Underwood discovers the titular last witness (Robert Wieckiewicz) to the Katyn atrocity hiding under the assumed identity of Michael Loboda, and the whole scheme of silence begins to reveal itself.
The Last Witness boasts a good cast with some decent performances, excellent locations, Nick Turner’s thoroughly convincing production design and Hilary Hughes’ authentic costumes, and well-composed music from Bartozs Chajdecki – but it never fully convinces. It’s an interesting – if shameful – part of history to examine, and a good premise for a film. It’s also clearly a passion project for both writers, with writer and director Szkopiak dedicating the film to his grandfather, an innocent victim of the massacre. Disappointingly though, the film is poorly executed in places and seems a little flimsy. There’s stilted editing with an over-reliance on quite abrupt fades to black, and clunky, unimaginative dialogue that a few of the actors struggle with, alongside lazy characterisations. Many of the characters and their motivations are not clearly introduced or explored, leaving the viewer to work to distinguish between the supporting characters.
Lead and co-producer Pettyfer broods convincingly as the quiet – but sometimes bordering on mono-syllabic – Underwood, but the lighter tone of his voice and chosen accent jars slightly with his imposing figure on screen. His moustache does also give the appearance of threatening to fall off his lip in some scenes – weirdly, as I’m pretty sure it’s real! Talulah Riley as the love interest is given little to work with (other than repeatedly saying “Stephen” and looking stricken), and arguably little to fall in love with too when her scenes with Pettyfer are held up to closer examination. The actors work hard at generating chemistry but it’s pretty absent, as is any substance to their relationship in the script. Her red lipstick is also rather distracting, and surely at odds with her being in uniform?
Wieckiewicz could do with more screen time as the true focus of the story, as well as more backstory, but he does his best with what he’s given. Speaking of underused talent, it’s slightly baffling as to what attracted Michael Gambon to this project when he appears in just two scenes. Being Michael Gambon, however, he delivers an exemplary performance, despite the lack of subtlety in his character and lines.
The film concludes with a decent twist, if a little rushed, which reveals a better film than the slow first half would suggest. The Last Witness provides an intriguing slice of history with decent aspects to its setting and performances, but more nuance and detail in the execution and story would have offered the audience far greater satisfaction.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★