A journalist filled with gusto and ambition accidentally discovers the murder of 22,000 officers of the Polish army seemingly by the Soviet during WWII. The deeper he digs into the issue, the more danger he puts himself in.
Written by Paul Szambowski and Piotr Szkopiak, with the latter directing as well, The Last Witness is a historical thriller that is more history lesson than thriller. Here the historical side of things looks to have been very well researched and is clearly and skillfully integrated into the story brought to the screen. The thriller aspect of this is however very different as the story and its aspects are definitely not all that thrilling or suspenseful. While the historical facts present in the film and central to the story are interesting and important, their delivery falls flat and feels about as exciting as a history class given by a disenchanted college teacher in a late evening class. This means that even with all the important facts and good intentions in the world, the film is ultimately a bit on the boring side.
The cast for this film is composed of talented people giving good performances that are appropriately somber and serious. In the lead of Stephen Underwood, the journalist at the center of the discovery, is Alex Pettyfer who is almost unrecognizable and who gives a serious, almost stoic at times, performance which fits the material, the era, and his character perfectly. Giving the best performance of the film, unsurprisingly, is Michael Gambon as Frank Hamilton. While he gets little screen time, he makes the most of it, giving the one performance that connect for this reviewer. His work his fantastic and he outshines the rest of the cast easily as is usually the case for him. The rest of the cast is good but all of them, including Pettyfer and Gambon, give very restrained performances giving the film a big part of its somber tone. The low emotion performances make sense for the story but they also create a disconnect with the viewer which will cause some to stop paying attention before all is said and done.
The film’s entire look, not only the performances, is somber. The costumes by Hilary Hughes are superbly researched and crafted, giving the film a look that, with the production design by Nick Turner and the décors, sets it squarely into the era of its story. The work here is meticulous and detailed showing a great knowledge and understanding of the period. Everything from interiors to the clothing to hair to makeup is on point here.
All of this is shot with cinematography by Edward Ames is careful, his work shows attention to characters, environment, and details, giving the scenes time and space to develop. The images and their editing by Jo Dixon are deliberate, giving the story and its characters the spotlight. The way the film is shot and edited stays out of the way, not constantly shaking or doing quick cuts. This leads to the film looking good and solid throughout.
The Last Witness tells an important story that needs to be told and know but ultimately is a lackluster film that feels like it drags on even at its 1 hour and 33 minutes runtime. The film itself is well-crafted with a somber and sober execution that is fitting of the story with good acting and great costumes and décors. History and war buffs should be interesting in The Last Witness, for casual watchers however, it may lead to some of them giving up at about the halfway point.