Heathrow hopefuls

Film - Philip Kerr on the film that moved him to a change of heart about asylum-seekers

At the recent Bafta ceremony, the director Pawel Pawlikowski appeared quite surprised to win the Carl Foreman Award for the Most Promising Newcomer to British Film. On the evidence of Pawlikowski's most recent film, Last Resort, it is easy to see why the Academy should have chosen to honour him thus. It is a superb little film, and its director well deserving of his gewgaw.

There are some who win Baftas - such as Michael Caine - who look as if they'd have punched someone in the throat if they hadn't trousered some sort of bauble. Pawlikowski was not one of these. Perhaps, as a Pole, he felt that he hardly counted as a newcomer to British film; but then, Joseph Conrad, another Pole, was one of our greatest novelists. Or perhaps Pawlikowski was merely worried about the curse of Cyril Connolly: "Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising." Just look at Quentin Tarantino.

More likely, Pawlikowski was just slightly taken aback that the fat cineastes of the Academy should have been paying much attention to a small BBC film - it is only 77 minutes long - about the plight of asylum-seekers in Britain.

Tanya, young and naive, leaves Moscow for England with her streetwise son, Artiom, to meet her elusive English fiance. But, after he fails to turn up at the airport, Tanya and Artiom find themselves virtually imprisoned in a near-deserted seaside resort where refugees are forced to live. They have no money, no rights and, it seems, no hope. Desperate to escape, Tanya is befriended by an amusement arcade manager, Alfie, who may or may not be the answer to her prayers.

For most people in Britain - myself included, until I saw Pawlikowski's film - asylum-seekers are not much more than a nuisance; and it has become easy to malign them as jockeys of the undercarriage, Eurostar Houdinis, squeegee highwaymen and Underground madonnas. So it comes as something of a shock to be reminded that the Heathrow Hopefuls, for whom the mantra "political asylum" has taken on the meaning of "holy sanctuary", are also people, with ordinary needs and human aspirations; and that they have a pretty miserable time of it in soulless detention centres like the one in Last Resort.

Ann Widdecombe would have us believe that asylum-seekers are asking to be handed the family silver, when the truth is that most of them are in search of not much more than the chance to let them polish it up for us, in order to earn a living. And it is the virtue of this film that Pawlikowski picks up what has become a very well-kicked political football and wipes some of the crap off the surface, before putting it back into play. To this extent, Last Resort is an important piece of drama-documentary, in the same way that Cathy Come Home was before it.

Although the film is often reminiscent of the best of Ken Loach, it is, in truth, never quite as harsh a portrait of ourselves as might have been painted by the British director. The immigration officials who yawn in Tanya's face are merely bored and indifferent. Given the same material, you feel that Loach's official would have told Tanya to fuck off back home. Pawlikowski, on the other hand, never loses a sense of humanity and optimism that, somehow, all will come right in the end for Tanya and Artiom. This isn't a gritty film that scours at our prejudices, but rather one that smoothes them away.

The performances, largely improvised, are uniformly excellent, but as the lachrymose Tanya, who echoes Lara in Doctor Zhivago, Dina Korzun is luminous. And it was a stroke of near-genius to cast Lindsey Honey as Les, the internet pornographer who tries to lure Tanya into his spider's webcam world of online peepshows. The real-life star and auteur of flesh-flicks such as Dirty Blondes and Kinky Ladies of London, Honey will be better known to readers of the New Statesman as Ben Dover. It would be too easy to say that he was just playing himself. The truth is that it takes an actor of some skill to create a character who is at once sleazy and sympathetic.

With the BBC wasting money on excrement such as The Inspector Lynley Mysteries and Adrian Mole: the cappuccino years, Pawlikowski was doubtless obliged to shoot his film on a shoestring. I suppose we should be grateful that, somehow, the corporation remains capable of nurturing real talent alongside what are otherwise Augean stables of gormless gardeners, shit-faced chefs, vacuous vets, dopey decorators, crappy comedians, junk-shop mavens and rebarbative redheads.

Last Resort (15) is showing in selected London cinemas