Last Orders (UK, 2001) ** 4/5
Directed and written by Fred Schepisi from the eponymous novel by Graham Swift. Photography, Brian Tufano. Editing, Kate Williams. Production design, Tim Harvey. Music, Paul Grabowsky; p. Producers, Schepisi & Elisabeth Robinson. Cast: Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings, Bob Hoskins (, Helen Mirren, Ray Winstone, J. J. Field, Cameron Fitch, et al. A Sony Pictures Classics release. 109 minutes. No subtitles. R (nudity) At the Art.
The movie comes from a novel which won the Booker Prize which is the British equivalent of the Pulitzer. The main setting is Bermondsey, an area in the London borough of Southwark. The characters are working class. Jack, a butcher (Michael Cain) has died. He was the liveliest in a quintet of best friends. His wish was that his ashes be thrown into the sea at Margate, a town which looks as dull as most British resorts shown in movies. (No wonder the people who can afford it go to France and Southern Europe!)
The four old pals follow those last orders in an automobile trip that makes frequent stops at pubs. Before I go on, here are some facts.
Down Under director Schepisi's name is pronounced "Skepsy." He was a major contributor to the Australian film renaissance (1970s on) with films such as "The Devil's Playground" and "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.." Of his later works-- several of which were made in the USA or the UK-- "Barbarossa" and "Six Degrees of Separation" are among my favorites. "Roxane," a modern version of "Cyrano de Bergerac," was probably Schepisi's biggest popular success, although I far prefer his delicious "I.Q." in which scientists including Albert Einstein play cupid with the latter's niece Meg Ryan and smart garage mechanic Tim Robbins.
In 2000, when "Last Orders" was filmed, Schepisi was 60 years old. The main cast of were approximately: Caine, 67; Courtenay, 63; Hemmings, 59; Hoskins, 58; Mirren, 55; Winstone, 53. The matches of performers to characters are good. So is the casting of the "now" people shown in much earlier years.
Jack may be dead but we see a lot of him because we get more flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, flash-worwards and so on than you can shake a stick at.
Does it work? Yes and no. The zig-zag, zig-zig and zag-zag method helps to tell a story of relationships but the device is so overdone that it may or may not confuse you. It is a far cry from that masterpiece built around wonderfully touching flashbacks, David Lean's "Brief Encounter" of 1946.
But big, inevitable confusion for non-Brit audience stems for the merciless Cockney, local or whatever accents. These cry out for subtitles on copies shown outside the UK. We are light years away from the elegantly clear sounds of BBC English, Oxbridge parlance or the amusingly exaggerated speech of toffs. Vide the recent multi-character "Gosford Park" with its even larger Who's Who of British thespians, including Helen Mirren. Here she plays Jack's wife of 50 years.
Above all do not wait for the video. For that matter, a state-of-the art DVD played in an elaborate home theater won't help. Even the best theatrical projection comprises aural stumbling blocks.
There's a nice kind of intimacy in "Last Orders." It is un-heroic, un-theatrical, excludes set-pieces. What set it aside are the naturalness, ordinariness, the commonplaces of this fragmented story, as well as the performances, notably Caine's as the back-slapping life of the party, and Bob Hoskins's as the best of Jack's best pals.
This is not so much a story as a series of incursions into love, friendship, stability and instability in human relations. The most heartbreaking scenes deal with Ms. Mirren. She visits her now 50-year old, totally silent daughter in an institution for the mentally defective. But Jack does not. The widowed Mirren too sitting outdors on a park bench with Hoskins has some sweet, brave and stoical conversations with him. What a pity the dialog often escapes you.
The un-sentimentalized nature of the movie, with its own kind of warmth, is a big, good change from spectacular, jejune, special effects and digital images cinema.
Some non-linguistic aspects puzzle me. For example, in a battle scene during World War II, Hoskins saves Jack's life. But the setup looks far more like the trenches of World War I.
What really takes the cake is the R rating. It must have been caused by the scene of a young woman's exposed breasts. Will censorship ever grow up?