Directed by Fred Schepisi, starring Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, Helen Mirren, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone and David Hemmings.
Based on the 1996 Booker Prize-winning novel by Graham Swift, 'Last Orders' sees Australian director Fred Schepisi direct, as one critic pointed out, all the great British actors who aren't in 'Gosford Park', and one who is (Helen Mirren). The result is a beautifully crafted exploration of the minutiae of life that bind us; of friendship and fate; and one which is the match of Altman's opus and more.
The narrative of the piece is instigated by the death of Cockney butcher Jack Dodds (Caine), and follows the car journey of his friends and only son to carry out, as it were, Jack's last orders – to scatter his ashes over the pier at Margate. The day starts with Vic (Courtenay), an undertaker, bringing the urn containing Jack's ashes to the local pub, where he joins Ray (Hoskins) and Lenny (Hemmings) for a quick one before the journey commences. The trio are transported by Jack's adopted son Vince (Winstone), a flashy used-car salesman who has chosen a shining Mercedes Benz for the lugubrious journey.
Jack's death and the journey to Margate afford the characters the chance to reminisce on the years of friendship and boozy camaraderie they have shared. But, as in life itself, it's not all misty-eyed nostalgia, and the trip serves to drag up their crushed hopes, buried resentments and perennial frustrations. Schepisi's reliance on flashbacks, and sometimes flashbacks-within-flashbacks, offers us a generous history of each character - giving a cumulative degree of involvement in each subsequent present-day scene. We learn that the likeable Ray is Jack's oldest and closest friend, having soldiered together in Egyptian trenches and brothels during WWII. Lenny is a more aggressive character, his pugilistic belligerence nurtured by his regret at having allowed drink and sloth to wreck his chances of becoming a prizefighter. Vince's past is evinced largely through his uneasy relationship with his father, whose pride and dedication as a butcher spilled over into a suffocating and subsequently shattered desire to see his son take over the business. Vic is the only individual who's wholly content with his lot in life, and because of this is actually the least interesting character on show.
There is one noticeable absentee in the Merc – Jack's wife Amy (Mirren). She has chosen not to travel as it coincides with her weekly trip to see June – the severely autistic daughter she bore Jack 50 years previously. In the see-saw of flashback, Jack and Amy's marriage is presented as a deeply contradictory one – their love for each other is never in question, but Jack's is somewhat diluted by Amy's decision all those years ago to keep June and her insistence on travelling to see her each week. One of the film's most touching scenes is Amy's revelation that Jack never once visited his daughter.
'Last Orders' is a very British film, and its examination of some rapidly disappearing British customs and its working class way of life is etched with suitably stifled emotion. We see the way each character feels, but we very rarely actually hear it first person. The superb ensemble cast is splendid, with each actor giving each other room to develop their characters. Nobody tries to steal the limelight, and the resulting rich interplay is simply magnificent. One minor quib is the folly of trying to make the leads look younger for the flashback sequences of the 60s and 70s. Here, some of the hairpieces are passable, but the difficulty in making an actor look younger is simply never overcome.
Overall, however, 'Last Orders' has class stamped all over it. Every once in a while, a film comes along that's invested with such palpable pathos, that's so finely crafted and claustrophobically real that it leaves you feeling the whole gamut of emotions. These films are getting scarcer, which makes 'Last Orders' even more memorable. This will leave you humoured, deflated, exhilarated and, ultimately, engrossed. Schepisi has made one of the films of the year, and certainly one of the best British films in recent times. He, and his superb cast, should take a bow.