Directed and co-written by Piotr Szkopiak, The Last Witness is based upon the harrowing events that took place during and after WWII, which involved the British and American armies covering up of the Katyn massacre in 1940 by the Russian NKVD. The victims were all shot in the back of the head and were buried in mass graves scattered around the Katyn Forest, only to then be discovered by German forces a year later who were building a road through the forest. In efforts to maintain the public image of displaying the noble Russians commitment to defeating the Nazis, the entire massacre was solely blamed on the Germans. Szkopiak’s grandfather was one of the innocents that were murdered and this film was his way of honouring their memory.
It’s clear that this was a true passion project from the get-go, and this film does have a mostly great cast that carry this film like the ever curmudgeonly Michael Gambon, a convincing Henry Lloyd-Hughes, and Talulah Riley even if she comes across as a bit stilted sometimes. There’s some impressive production design by Nick Turner, which is aptly helped by Edward Ames’ perfectly gloomy cinematography, plus Bartozs Chajdecki’s music adds to the bleak atmosphere of the whole film. It’s clear that this film set out with the best intentions to tell a story that’s not generally discussed a lot in history, however, this movie is poorly executed in some places.
There’s stilted editing that involves an over-reliance on quite abrupt fades-to-black transitions, and there’s some pretty clunky dialogue that feels very unimaginative, which leaves the actors to struggle with the little characterization they are given. Many of the characters, as well as their motivations, are not clearly introduced or explored enough to make us care or be intrigued by the characters, leaving us feeling alienated as a result and giving off a cold experience. The main character in the reporter desperate to reveal the truth to the world suffers greatly due to Alex Pettyfer giving a very bland, monosyllabic central performance, and frankly, you are more interested in that odd moustache he’s sporting which looks as though it’s about to fall off his upper lip in certain scenes.
In the end, The Last Witness provides an intriguing insight into a period of history that’s rarely talked about and does it with enough credit to make it a watchable experience. There are plenty of aspects worth crediting from the setting to some of the performances, but a stronger lead and a touch more nuance and detail in the execution and storytelling would’ve offered a much more satisfying and emotionally rewarding experience.
Dir: Piotr Szkopiak
Scr: Piotr Szkopiak, Paul Szambowski
Cast: Alex Pettyfer, Robert Więckiewicz, Talulah Riley, Michael Gambon, Will Thorp, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Gwilym Lee
Prd: Carol Harding
DOP: Edward Ames
Music: Bartozs Chajdecki
Country: UK, Poland
Run time: 92 mins
Signature Entertainment release The Last Witness on Digital & DVD from Monday 27 August