The Cruel Seaside

Film still for The Cruel Seaside

Grim Margate is the ideal setting for Pawel Pawlikowski's Last Resort, his mismatch between a romantic Russian woman and an arcade geezer, argues Iain Sinclair

Well it's still a mystery. Why Margate?" Graham Swift, Last Orders

"More of grace than of nature," wrote the mythologist Arthur Machen of the hills around Abergavenny in the Welsh border country. That distinction can as easily be applied to Pawel Pawlikowski's Isle of Thanet film Last Resort . Grace under pressure, under provocation; human tenderness, confusion, courage, stupidity, enacted against a backdrop - "Stonehaven, near the sea" - affectionately known as "the armpit of the universe". Stonehaven is impersonated by Margate. Where else? The Kentish gulag defines the point at which the Last Resort becomes the first asylum; off-highway, out of mind. A dispirited site for human landfill. Those banished by Jack Straw. The demonised of Ann Widdecombe: "My first priority is to detain all new asylum-seekers. That is the only way we are going to send out a deterrent message." Sea the colour of used gum. Sky like dead Copydex. A haven for stones.

Last Resort operates through fiercely delineated contraries: documentary techniques brought to bear on retro-realist fiction, the sort of fables that were once the exportable element in Czech cinema. Charm factored through closely observed relationships, affirmations played out in the teeth of bureaucratic indifference, off-stage political repression. The argument is oblique, the satire playful. Pawlikowski disdains the gritty confrontations and clunking rhetoric that fuel British (un)realist television drama: 'situation' soaps, luridly cross-cut antitheses, catalogue actors overwhelmed by the world that surrounds them. What's fundamentally wrong with that dialectic is the overscripting and underimagining, the excess of drafts, each one a pale Xerox of the original impulse. Until subversion, quirk, quiddity are ironed out and interesting ambiguities are reduced to the single-sentence pitch. Asylum-seekers, English seaside. Kie´slowski meets Patrick Keiller (long shots from the top of Blackpool Tower).

Travelling backwards, on the funfair railway that links the various terminals at Gatwick, is a great start: disorienting, engaging. A Russian woman - single parent, yes; alien, certainly; attractive, of course - with her (little husband) son, as they launch themselves on a doomed adventure. She's chasing an absent English "fiancé" (the anachronistic term signals her sideways relation with the anti-culture to which she has voluntarily submitted herself). The short ride, with its nicely posthumous chorus of robotic, pre-recorded voices, stands in for the aerial thrills of the Dreamland park in Margate. This odd couple are going the wrong way down the birth canal. The split consciousness that will dominate Pawlikowski's project is already evidenced by the artificial green light of the tunnel and the white light of the cold world as they emerge to face the bungling pedantry, the Ken Loach/Mike Leigh farce of airport immigration ceremonies.

Dina Korzun, who plays Tanya, the reluctant asylum-seeker, has a doll-like, kabuki presence; high, thin eyebrows, always arched, astonished. Slavic melancholy. Carrying on against expectations, against all previous experience. A china-white face and blood-red lips that are emphasised, from time to time, by the scarlet collar of her jacket. She lies with good grace, shifts her ground. It's a performance, this life, and she's committed to it. The long hair is girlish, held in place by a pink butterfly grip. Tanya's 10-year-old son Artiom (played by Artiom Strelnikov) becomes an inducted adult, the voice of reason that nags against his mother's naive fantasies. They are caught up, this loving couple, mother and son, in a Bicycle Thieves endgame; post-bellum desolation, young Mother Courage. Sentimental realism, in the warp of the late-millennium Kent coast, is translated into surrealism. Palm-tree wallpaper, blood flowering into a bottle. "So mad," Tanya sniffs, "whole life looking for love."

"You're driving me crazy," says Alfie (Paddy Considine), the Stonehaven arcade-manager and poverty-row fixer who becomes Tanya's protector. And he means it. His existence is a thwarted recovery programme: bad childhood (Midlands), handy with his fists, prison. He's slid as far as he can go, decency eroded by circumstance, climate. There's always a ruck, a clumsy affray, going on at the corner of the frame, at the edge of a trashed shopping precinct. Alfie, his name a teasing back reference to Michael Caine (as a wink-at-the-camera chancer from a more robust era), is only just holding it together. "You're driving me crazy." Considine, a dark, lean presence, shadowboxes in his low-ceilinged tower-block flat. The (shock) corridors are frantic with Balkan quarrels, domestic and tribal punch-ups. But the feral kids know Alfie doesn't mean it, he won't go all the way; he ducks and dives, blocks their knee-level attacks.

Considine, last seen in Shane Meadows' A Room for Romeo Brass (1999), has a physicality that's more American than British; he moves on the balls of his feet, talks when there's nothing to say, a stream-of-consciousness noise to soothe and charm his exotic object of desire. Korzun is good too. Her reactions are believable, arrived at in response to what's happening, not to a scripted climax. There's a gesture that comes over as totally undirected, when she's leaving Margate, leaving Alfie. She's about to haul herself into the cab of a juggernaut, she turns back. You expect a standard reflex, a last embrace, a brave speech, a sniffle. Korzun offers a miraculous half-wave of dismissal. Blink and you could miss it. It's our unfamiliarity with these faces, not knowing exactly how they'll behave, that adds immeasurably to the charm of Last Resort . The simple fact of not watching Ross Kemp and Michelle Collins is a holiday for the eyeballs. Considine is a modest marvel: he can walk and talk at the same time; he can go with conflicting, shifting emotions, the slap that turns into a hug. He doesn't do the Ross Kempnostril flare, the Bob Hoskins blink, the Ray Winstone jab. He hasn't been around long enough to copyright his mannerisms.

The film's narrative, the bit the commissioners get to see, would fit on a postcard: Moscow mother (two previous husbands) arrives at Gatwick with son in tow. Expectations dashed. "A refugee by accident." Trapped in terminal Margate: "a nightmarish world of misfits and no-hopers". Alliance of convenience with penny-arcade drifter. Sells blood, bottles out of cyberporn audition. Escapes by boat, gifting her painting of a fabulous ark to her rescuer.

This foreground story, shot sweatily close in Super-16, is scratchy with business. You can smell the crew's excitement as they close in on the perpetually occupied phone kiosk, squabbled over by unwilling exiles. Six o'clock shadow all day, mountain-man moustaches. Gypsies, bandits, lawyers, graceful Somali diplomats. Stonehaven is unbearable. The awful (no change on voucher, no fish inside batter) chip shop where Tanya looks for work. And, permitless, is rejected. "Everybody can do anything." The only currencies are blood and tobacco. Hang out at the caravan for sessions of plasma extraction, spot-cash vampirism. Shivering Albanians shove their cheeks to the glass, waiting for Dreamland to open. It costs £300 to get out of Stonehaven. "You could always sell a kidney," Alfie joshes Tanya.

In fact, cyberprostitution is the town's sole profit-making industry. All other activities - queuing for queues, servicing slot-machines that rage in a perpetual Hawaiian surf-orgasm, bingo revivalism - are unconvinced survival strategies; ways of putting on time before the final cull. Website pornography glues this exhausted maritime settlement to the map. "We're live to Pakistan and the Gulf." From a grand sea-facing house, a slimeball called Les ("I am Mr Stonehaven") operates an interactive masturbation factory. Where Stonehaven is concerned, Les is energy. He's got his pitch. And, better yet, his look: rock 'n' roll pimp, ear-studs, bracelet, loose jacket, amphetamine rush. A Pete Townshend (with hair) who never made it out of the White City pub band. On arrival at Gatwick Tanya has been asked, pointedly, if she is soliciting work. Les offers the only work there is, soliciting. "Always looking for really beautiful girls," he yawns, touchy-feely. "Gorgeous cheekbones," adds his minder Frank. The red-top aesthete.

Stonehaven's pastel-coloured internet knocking shop uses microchip technology to service the most primitive form of cinema (in its way, this material parodies Hollywood, the global-economy product). It's antiseptic, simple-minded. Nuns, nurses, schoolgirls. "Little white socks, white shoes, white knickers." Les mimes a self-pleasuring act with a fluffy white bunny (Roger Rabbit on the skids). But even when Tanya breaks down, mid-stroke, Les doesn't lose it. He's soon at her door, cash in hand: "They loved the crying schoolgirl bit."

Pawlikowski, nodding to Ken Loach, revisits the tropes of Poor Cow. Tanya faces the video feed as Carol White bravely fronted the amateur camera club. The DoP, Ryszard Lenczewski, uses a long lens to squeeze the action, the faces. It saves time to work close, to trust the instincts of the actors; rehearsed set-pieces, improvisations. It's a style that's developed from Pawlikowski's background in documentaries. But here the fictional element is challenged by a number of stunning wide-angle long shots. Views from the tower block over the spectral elegance of the curved bay, the vestigial pier, or down on the out-of-season funfair. This split consciousness - chillingly beautiful glimpses of the actual cut against human pantomime - gives Last Resort its structure. Elective schizophrenia: the futility of Tanya's fantasies and the suppressed rage of Alfie's life of exile and thwarted love. Denial becomes affirmation, negativity capability. "I have to stop dreaming," she cries. "I've been dreaming all my life."

John Pearson's captured sounds confirm the thesis: dead-soul seagulls, wind pushing against windows, sweeping across deserted spaces. Minimal interventions that are barely noticed, a presence (the equivalent of the long shots) before the hum and buzz, the acoustic bother of Dreamland; electronic idiocy as a mocking chorus to spoiled love. The sound-edit emphasises Margate's vinegary vernacular: boot heels clopping, a Babel of chip shops and benefit offices, dogs, folksongs from over-occupied bedsits, juvenile obscenities. There's a lovely weave of natural effects, more articulate than any of the characters. The crackle of fire on the beach. The click of metal coat-hangers when Tanya tries to sell her unwanted Russian fur.

That a Polish film-maker should see the Isle of Thanet as a suitable location for a drama of exile, surveillance, containment, is an intriguing cultural marker. Back in the 60s we welcomed Polanski (life membership to the Playboy Club) as a long-haired swinger, someone sharp enough to pick up on landscapes our native location-finders were too lazy to notice. Cul-de-Sac (1966), shot on Holy Island (ticked off, more recently, by Andrew Kötting in Gallivant), gave Pinter (by way of Donald Pleasence) and Beckett (by way of Jack MacGowran) a surrealist spin. Jerzy Skolimowski, another Polish transient, chose (in 1970) to recreate a London municipal swimming-pool in Munich for his film Deep End. Not a bad move; successive governments were soon to rationalise these socially benevolent facilities. By the time he made Moonlighting in 1982 Skolimowski was working Loach territory: illegal labourers scuffling in a foreign city where they have to rely on Jeremy Irons as their interpreter.

Cultural traffic used to work in this way: England had the cash (Hollywood stringers or strip-club visionaries like Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger) and Poland had the talent (state-funded film school, proper training). A sweetheart deal between the loose change of capitalism and smart boys who wanted to move west: jazz, cars, clothes, cinema. Françoise Dorléac and Jane Asher. There was also, from this side, the leftist urge to demonstrate solidarity with artists working under duress, at the sharp end. Lindsay Anderson needed the Czech cameraman Miroslav Ondrícek to validate his polemic and poeticise his vision. Stephen Frears, assistant director on If, recalling Ondrícek's methods for Gavin Lambert's biography of Anderson, remarked that he was "a bit literal-minded". He favoured the "candid camera style" - tight against the performer, movements directed by the responses of the actors.

England, with Margate as the paradigm of the unbrochured, the unpitchable, is now revealed as turf that can throw the frighteners into sensitive eastern Europeans. Images of prison colonies and life without hope have been reversed. If you can't be computer-enhanced, talked up by spin-doctors, you don't exist. New Labour, following on from Thatcher's brutalist realpolitik, has decreed that certain zones are never to be mentioned. Margate is a sanctioned nowhere, a dumping ground for immigrants, runaways and inner-city scroungers. Barter is the favoured form of commercial transaction. Temporary inhabitants, with no stake in society, no voice in civic debate, forget their native languages and struggle with the Esperanto of survivalism. Kids learn English by parroting "10 Benson and Hedges" or "Fish and chips twice, please."

Peter Brook, introducing Jan Kott's Shakespeare Our Contemporary, claimed that "Kott is undoubtedly the only writer on Elizabethan matters who assumes without question that every one of his readers will at some point or other have been woken by the police in the middle of the night." A fair description of Pawlikowski's Stonehaven. It's easy to forget that Margate has a pedigree. J. M. W. Turner lived on the old harbour, as "Admiral Puggy Booth". "The loveliest skies in Europe are over the Isle of Thanet," he said. Cameraman Lenczewski appears to agree: Rothko-like blocks of blue-grey, bruised purples. Overweight clouds, moderate sea and a thin, unconvinced shore.

They've all been here, all written it up. Oscar Wilde, Dennis Wheatley, Lindsay Anderson. Anderson's self-financed short O Dreamland (1953) sees the funfair and pleasure grounds, once a proper metropolitan excursion (now made redundant by the retail parks of Bluewater and Thurrock Lakeside), as a sequence of hellish close-ups. The leather-jacketed patrician was clearly repelled by the noise of proles at play. Pawlikowski takes the seafront's only tower block, a spectacularly rippled monster that stands immediately alongside Dreamland, as the fixed point in his psychogeographic exploration. Not so much a Ballardian High Rise as a vertical slum, stacked hutches with stunning prospects. Pictorial values for those who don't need them. Compulsory leisure.

Margate, weirdly, is crucial to the trajectory of modernism. It's a white-knuckle ride from T. S. Eliot's convalescence in the Albermarle Hotel, Cliftonville ("On Margate Sands. I can connect/ Nothing with nothing"), to the noir pulp of Anthony Frewin's Scorpion Rising ("Vince was sorting through a rack of local postcards"). From the moment of fracture, personal despair, civilisation in crisis that followed World War I, to Frewin and his affectionate reworkings of film memory (The Long Good Friday, Get Carter) as fast-twitch prose.

Margate basks in its accidental exposure to the limelight. Graham Swift's Booker Prize-winning novel Last Orders describes (after Faulkner) an elegiac excursion to the seaside, an urn of ashes to be chucked from the pier. "As if we could put the clock back and start again where it all stopped. Second honeymoon. As if Margate was another word for magic." Which, as Pawlikowski proves, it is; the magic of the margin, the unnoticed. The stink of frying onions, rubbish on the tide, that makes all the old villains nostalgic.

But the Polish director hasn't been the only one out on the road. Film gossip reports the presence in Canterbury of those heritage gargoyles, the Toby jugs of geezerdom, Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, along with the location catering, caravans and fuss of a proper British movie - trampling on the shades of Michael Powell. The above-the-title boys are appearing in a version of Graham Swift's novel. As ever, in circles where deals are made, the known is all that is to be known. Which is as good a reason as any for relishing Pawlikowski's small fable. Last Resort , being itself, and nothing else, is resolutely unexploitable.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012