I looked recently at writer and director David Mackenzie with reference to his adaptation of Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam (see You Have Been Watching…Young Adam). The Last Great Wilderness, his 2002 film that has his brother Alastair Mackenzie in the lead role, is where it all started for him in terms of feature length films. With hindsight all the Mackenzie trates are in evidence, but even without hindsight it is an assured and fascinating début, one which should be revisited and reassessed in the light of David Mackenzie’s subsequent success.
It has the feel of the type of film Film Four used to make in the 80s and early 90s, where risks were taken and weirdness embraced. Two men meet in a service station and go on a road trip to Scotland that is ostensibly about revenge for one, and escape for the other. They wind up at The Moor Lodge Wilderness Retreat, an old hotel in the middle of the Highlands, and that is where the story really begins. The film has echoes of The Wicker Man, Straw Dogs, and Hotel New Hampshire. The small ensemble cast are all excellent as a group of very different people who are trying to support one another, but events are put into action by the arrival of the two outsiders.
Alistair Mackenzie is perfect leading man material begging the question why he isn’t better known. I last remember him as the lead in Iain Rankin’s Reichenbach Falls, the feature length TV drama from 2007 and in Richard Jobson’s New Town Killers. To my mind he is a much better actor than Dougray Scott or Gerard Butler to name just two who have gone on to greater success. Here he is Charlie, a man who is at heart decent but who has almost been destroyed by a failed marriage. His is the least showy role in the film, but it is also the most important as the audience identify with him and his attempts to understand the madness that surrounds him. As his depraved and unhinged sidekick Vincent, Jonny Philips manages to stay just the right side of over the top. His Spanish gigolo act and accent is thankfully soon dropped and he plays the crazy sidekick well. The two make for an odd couple, but when they arrive at The Moor Lodge they quickly come to believe that, against the odds, they may be the most sane people around.
David Hayman is Ruaridh, the nominal leader of a disparate group of damaged characters who have come to the hotel seeking shelter, sanctuary and in an attempt to heal. Although constantly working since the late 1960s, both on stage and screen, Hayman remains an underrated actor who is able to exude compassion, pain and barely concealed violence in a single look. Also resident are Ford Kiernan’s agoraphobic Eric, John Comerford’s priest Paul who is fighting paedophilic urges, Louise Irwin as the sex addict Morag and Sheila Donald as Ellie, the groups terminally ill matriarch. The other two central characters are Victoria Smurfitt’s Claire, who is hiding from her violent husband, and Ewan Stewart’s Magnus, who lives on his own in the hills and is trying to come to terms with the death of his daughter. Their stories are central to the film.
After initially mistrusting Charlie, Claire finds herself falling for him and he finds that she enables him to move on and put aside all thoughts of revenge. Magnus’s dead daughter appears to Vincent, and he becomes obsessed with her, seeing her at every turn. The longer the two are persuaded to stay at The Moor Lodge it becomes clear that all is not as it seems and that there are terrible secrets to uncover. The cultish group, and the pagan ritual, are what has brought comparison with The Wicker Man, but the comparisons should not be overplayed. The Last Great Wilderness is not a horror movie, and although there is a shocking and violent scene near the end, you are left with hope that things are going to improve for these people.
The soundtrack to the film is provided by The Pastels, and it is one of the best things they have done. There is also a guest appearance from Jarvis Cocker on I Picked A Flower, a song which has a central role in the film. The Pastels also appear as part of a house band which features the great Bill Wells and The Vaseline’s Eugene Kelly. If only they were available for weddings. Here’s a taster:
The Last Great Wilderness is a portent of what was to come. Its low budget is obvious, but Mackenzie turns it into an advantage as the camera work, lighting and small cast all add to the tension and claustrophobic feel that the film has. In a sense it’s a shame that Mackenzie has become so successful so quickly as I would have liked to have seen more films made for almost no money from him, although I doubt that Young Adam or Hallam Foe had huge budgets, and he retains his sense of the odd in both those films. His next releases, both due this year, are the quickly made festival romance You Instead and the end of the world romance Perfect Sense, and they look to maintain this off kilter world view. Mackenzie is a romantic in the widest sense. What he does better than most is to examine relationships between two or more people, which are usually complex and unusual, and use them to make further points about the world and humanities place in it. You get the feeling that no matter what film David Mackenzie makes he will look to keep that intimacy at the heart of the story. You can take the boy out of the wilderness, but you can’t take the wilderness out of the boy.