Emil Forester (Matthew Macfadyen: Anna Karenina) makes, in the words of his cleaning lady, “strange films”; his last one was shot entirely on a container freighter in the middle of an ocean. But he’s stumped for an idea for his next one. Will an invitation to a film festival in the “Autonomous Republic of Karastan” — motto: “land of inspiration” — give him the spark he needs to start a new project? In fact, he won’t have any choice: President Abashiliev (Richard van Weyden) insists that Emil direct an epic film about a historic Karastani national hero, and despite the fact that Emil doesn’t seem to have much choice — people who disagree with Abashiliev get shot, the president notes casually — the enthusiasm Emil has for the proposal is genuine. But there are many uphill battles to face when mounting an epic cinematic production in a land where Emil is considered a pitiable man because he doesn’t own any sheep.
The premise of Lost in Karastan is promising, and indeed, it’s while the film is setting it up that it works best. There is snarky black comedy in Emil’s culture shock in this land of bombed-out cities and hardscrabble countryside, where oppression is the norm and propaganda the only news source. Screenwriters Ben Hopkins and Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida) — Hopkins also directs — get hearty laughs out of our expectations of such a place, too. (Tbilisi, Georgia, serves as an authentic stand-in for Karastan.) But as production on Emil’s epic begins, Karastan loses focus, squandering the possibilities of the fabulous Noah Taylor (Edge of Tomorrow) as the outrageous Hollywood actor brought in to headline as the Karastani hero, and seeming to forget the sense of looming menace it had been creating even as it wants to pick it up again near the end. It also fails to realize that its most interesting character is MyAnna Buring’s (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2) government liaison for Emil, tossing off the substance of what could have worked as a fantastic — and, much more importantly, thematically relevant — subplot in one quick line of dialogue, far too late for it to have any real impact.
In centering itself too much around Emil, Karastan’s myopia weakens everything it’s trying to say. Through it all, Macfadyen is a wonderfully put-upon presence as a man who just wants to make art while the world conspires against him, and along with the film’s humor, he’s the best reason to see this. But even Emil’s own myopia in the matter never amounts to much of anything worth talking about.