Michael Caine. Tom Courtenay. David Hemmings. Bob Hoskins. Helen Mirren. Ray Winstone. It's an exceptional cast, a gathering of some of the most impressive names in British acting, but it's part of the grace of "Last Orders" that it's not immediately clear what attracted them all to this particular project.
For "Last Orders," feelingly directed by Fred Schepisi from Graham Swift's resonant Booker Prize-winning novel, is deceptive in the best sense. Gathering its forces slowly, this careful, thoughtful film, quietly but deeply moving, is dramatic without seeming to be.
A story of the involving secrets behind ordinary lives, "Last Orders" touches on memory and regrets, dreams and disappointments, what tears people apart and what holds them together--all the things that show how complex simple lives can be if we but have the time and wisdom to look. The film's celebrated, experienced cast is a considerable asset in this, and not just because its members give the natural, subdued performances the material requires. It's also because regular moviegoers will have vivid memories of these people when they were younger, of Courtenay, for instance, in "Doctor Zhivago" and "Billy Liar," and Hemmings in "Blowup." And growing older and just maybe if you're lucky getting a little bit wiser is very much what this film is about.
"Last Orders" begins quietly and unobtrusively, as four men of a certain age come together in their local London pub, the Coach and Horses. One of their number, Jack Dodds (Caine), the group's guiding force, has died, and they are here to fulfill his surprise last request.
When the bartender says things won't be the same, one of the men cracks, "You ain't seen the last of Jack yet." He means it as a joke, because Jack's cremated ashes are about to appear on the scene, but the comment turns out to have a larger relevance as well. For Jack's "last order" becomes an opportunity for all these men to examine their lives, the reason for a journey that is fraught with emotion and surprise.
What Jack has asked is that his ashes be scattered off the pier at the seaside town of Margate. Even with a direct itinerary, the auto trip would not be short, but the route of what one of the gang calls "four geezers and a box" turns out to be anything but straightforward. Unexpected detours are made, unfinished emotional business gets examined, and we gradually come to know the entirety of these very human, very fallible lives.
The driver of the car, a Mercedes to suit the occasion, is Jack's son Vince, a car dealer familiarly known as Big Boy and exactly played by Winstone (Ben Kingsley's prey in "Sexy Beast") as someone who manages to be simultaneously brutish and sensitive.
The most serene of Vince's passengers is Vic (Courtenay), an undertaker as dignified as his job would indicate. Not serene at all is the blustery Lenny (Hemmings), a former boxer who still holds a variety of grudges. And then there is Ray (Hoskins), known as Lucky because of his gift for the horses, who's had the longest and most complex relationship with Jack.
One person who might be expected to be in the car but isn't is Jack's widow, Amy (Mirren), who has a different kind of family business to take care of. Though she is not on the trip, Amy's story is central to "Last Orders," and Mirren, allowing herself to look almost unrecognizably pinched and severe, gives a beautiful performance as a woman trying to hold her own in an indifferent world.
As adapted by director Schepisi, "Last Orders" mirrors the book's intricate structure, easily switching both time periods and points of view. We see all the characters, including the now departed Jack, at several points in their lives, some so early that other, younger actors are required to play the scenes. One of the pleasant paradoxes of "Last Orders" is that though Schepisi is an Australian filmmaker, some of whose best work ("The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith," "A Cry in the Dark") is set in that country, he has done an impeccable job of bringing to life an intensely English story. This is an especially subtle film where, as Winstone has said, "it's all about how you look in the rearview mirror during the dialogue in the car. The camera does a lot of the talking for you." It's hard not to be moved by what it has to say.
MPAA rating: R for sexuality and some language. Times guidelines: profanity, brief nudity, adult subject matter.
Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Fred Schepisi. Producers Elisabeth Robinson, Fred Schepisi. Executive producers Nik Powell, Rainer Mockert, Gary Smith, Chris Craib. Screenplay Fred Schepisi, based on the novel by Graham Swift. Cinematographer Brian Tufano. Editor Kate Williams. Costumes Jill Taylor. Music Paul Grabowsky. Production design Tim Harvey. Art director Paul Cross. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
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