Director: Ben Hopkins
Cast: Matthew Macfadyen, MyAnna Buring, Noah Taylor
Watch Lost in Karastan online in the UK: Amazon Prime / BFI Player / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
Matthew Macfadyen isn’t an actor known for his comic timing. He’s the kind of stoic yet nuanced presence that anchors Ripper Street or makes a convincing Spook. What a treat it is to have Lost in Karastan land in cinemas and on VOD and (after a stint playing Jeeves on stage opposite Stephen Mangan’s Wooster) finally give the actor a chance to show his funny side on screen.
He plays Emil Forester, an arty British director who despairs at the state of modern cinema. So when he gets a call from the fictional Republic of Karastan, inviting him to be an honoured guest at their film festival, he happily accepts – only to end up drawn into making a propaganda film for the nation’s dictator.
What follows is a strange little tale, one that ranges from awkward comedy to political satire, with romance and behind-the-scenes slapstick along the way. Richard van Weyden visibly enjoys the heck out of his role as President Abashiliev, drifting between cheerful smiles and serious threats, with a passion for chatting movies in between. Noah Taylor has just as much fun as Xan Butler, a drunken actor who has somehow ended up in Karastan and become their biggest film star. One runs around on set shouting like an imbecile; the other looms behind the camera, scaring the locals into acting in their movie.
As Emil hovers on a crane over sweeping set pieces, there’s a whiff of classic Hollywood farce to the whole affair. But there’s an endearing pong of failure underlying events too, which gives the silliness a gentle poignancy. “People who don’t agree with me tend to be killed,” quips the President, for the umpteenth time, undermining his own attempts at tyranny, while the Georgia locations used for filming are as exotic as they are tragically dilapidated. Even the sinister guy stalking Emil around the town turns out to be an unemployed actor. And constantly lingering in the background is the telling fact that Emil’s only real sign of success is among the residents of an unheard-of republic.
The most engaging part of it, though, involves the president’s assistant, Chulpan, played by Myanna Buring. After impressing in Ripper Street, she reunites with co-star Macfadyen. He cuts a wonderfully downbeat figure as the pathetic filmmaker, a contrast to her coy secrecy that sparks genuine romantic chemistry. Despite their performances, though, Chulpan never quite brings together the film’s themes of politics and art – Ben Hopkins and Pawel Pawlikowski’s uneven script can’t decide whether to be a scathing commentary on the balance between the two, or a fish-out-of-water comedy. The result isn’t spiky enough or laugh-out-loud enough to be either. Nonetheless, that free-wheeling tone makes Lost in Karastan an oddly likeable watch. It might lose its way, but it finds something else: Macfadyen, the under-appreciated straight man that British comedy never knew it had.
Lost in Karastan is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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