For a good third of The Last Photograph, Danny Huston’s first directorial effort for nearly 20 years, there’s a distinct impression that something’s not right. The acting is wonky, some of the artistic choices are confusing (why has he put a soft filter on the camera at just this moment?), the narrative is playing out to a staccato rhythm which seems designed to confuse rather than enlighten. It’s all a bit chaotic.
Huston also plays the lead character, a grouchy guy who owns a bookshop concession inside Chelsea Farmers Market, London, whose dealings with his fellow humans all seem to end the same way: the middle finger, either at him or from him.
But then there’s the flashback stuff, to dad Tom (Huston) and son Luke (Jonah Hauer-King) driving out to the airport, en route having the sort of awkward conversation dads have with sons when matters of great intimacy are involved. Luke is going to spend Christmas with new girlfriend Bird (Stacy Martin), and dad would really rather Luke spent it with him. He’s hurt, but he’s not saying.
And there’s flashbacks to further back, when Luke met Bird at a party, and the fact of her hit him like a brick in the head, their courtship (an old-fashioned word, but it is an old-fashioned wooing) and their delicious falling-in-love.
The elements fall into place suddenly, as by a magician’s reveal, and yet there hasn’t actually been an obvious one. The “wonkiness”, the odd acting, the strange choices are all deliberate, they’re manifestations of Tom’s state of mind.
No matter what else is obscure in The Last Photograph, what is abundantly clear from the first moment is that Luke is now, somehow, dead and his father Tom has lost his grip on the world. He’s unmoored, unmanned.
Things come to a head after Tom’s briefcase is lifted from almost under his nose in his shop by two very obvious thieves – he’s obviously not fully functioning – and with it goes not just Tom’s money, house keys etc, but also the last photo he had taken with Luke, a Polaroid snapped at Christmas of a proud dad and his handsome son, poised on the threshold of his adult life.
And off Tom goes, blundering around the streets of London looking for the case, almost certainly chucked away by now, a copper tells him, on the way leaning for support on Hannah (Sarita Choudhury), the woman who runs the cafe next to his shop and who until now has thought of him as an “arsehole”.
This is an exploration of grief, more specifically male grief, a dad’s grief, and it’s a particularly effective one, unusually and sensitively done and never tipping over into mawkishness. Why it doesn’t is mysterious, though Huston’s acting has something to do with it, his intimate camera also, and the montage work done in the edit suite, where flashes of hazy, beautiful dream sequences suggest Tom isn’t the “arsehole” he superficially seems to be.
The luminous Stacy Martin helps too, though it’s actually Huston’s presentation of her that’s important: we get enough to understand that Bird is an individual and yet Huston’s camera is also non-specific enough that Bird is also everygirl to Luke’s everyboy, beautiful young people, a romantic couple in uppercase.
In letters from grieving dad to grieving girlfriend we get more texture, more emotion, more revelations about the state of Tom’s soul.
How Luke died is spelled out clearly, and the imdb summary spells it out clearly too, but I’m not going to go there. It’s the element that finally pulls the film together, explaining why the character of Tom is such a grouch, and why director Danny Huston is futzing around early on in a way that seemingly borders on the incompetent.
I will just say that it’s something familiar from TV news, a catastrophe from out of the blue, of the sort where helicopter news cameras hover and viewers gawp almost uncomprehendingly, re-assembling bits and pieces into what was once a familiar whole.
It’s a tiny film – one camera maybe, a handful of actors, most scenes one on one, probably shot in chunks on the fly whenever Martin or Hauer-King or Choudhury’s diaries synced with Huston’s, and then magicked together in an edit suite, where Ximenez Alvarez Mascio and Francisco Forbes have assembled footage shot by DP Ed Rutherford (Joanna Hogg’s DP, and we are in similar, emotionally subterranean territory). Peter Raeburn’s score of low rumbles and screamingly high notes perfectly catches the mood too.
Fabulous, and worth watching twice to fully get what Huston is doing in a film a lot bigger than its budget and also managing to make a very particular grief ring with a universal resonance.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021