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It’s fitting that the London of Last Orders feels like a small town; after all, it was director Fred Schepisi who shrank New York’s impersonal bustle to a web of felicities and coincidences with his screen adaptation of Six Degrees of Separation. Based on Graham Swift’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Last Orders is also about these threads of connection, these intimacies that compress the grand—of stakes, like war, or of scale, like a city—into a manageable map of the human heart’s well-trodden paths.
Jack Dodds (Michael Caine) has just died, and his pals Ray (Bob Hoskins), Lenny (David Hemmings), and Vic (Tom Courtenay), and his resentful son, Vince (Ray Winstone), gather in their “soufeast” London local to carry out Jack’s wishes for the disposal of his ashes. Somewhat capriciously, the roguish but good-hearted butcher has left a To Whom It May Concern note to his wife, Amy (Helen Mirrin), asking that he be scattered into the sea from the holiday village of Margate. The men embark on their journey with the silently looming box taking up a seat in car dealer Vince’s showroom Mercedes, stopping in pub after pub, engaging in the kind of un-narrative joshing interplay that draws males together, recalling Jack in private thoughts, and getting into lacerating public spats. Meanwhile, Amy makes her weekly visit to her and Jack’s mentally disabled daughter, June, who is spending her 50th year smiling blankly in a “home.”
Ray, a professional gambler, was closest to Jack, but he also had the most conflicted relationship with the dead man—a sort of raw admiration tempered by time and observation to a rueful amity. After all, Ray was a drab young fellow when Jack came upon him in an army barracks in Africa. Tall, elegantly slim, and glowing like golden youth itself, 18-year-old Jack (JJ Feild, a living illustration from a ’20s golfing-clothier’s ad) is a riveting creature whose infectious zest galvanizes Ray; he’s also inspired by a photo of Jack’s wife.
Lenny, the elfin ex-boxer whose spiritual streak doesn’t manage to restrain his hair-trigger pugnacity, plants himself in the Mercedes’ back seat like a malicious Buddha, his crazy-old-man eyebrows presiding over his face like devil horns. The taciturn Vic, a funeral director, has such natural reflexes to serve the propriety of the situation that it’s almost startling when he hands the box of ashes to Ray in the back seat, saying, “I’m sorry, that was thoughtless. Do you want to hold him for a while?”
Nothing happens in order, and the jumble of memories spills out almost randomly, as a natural part of the assessment that takes place whenever someone dies. Jack’s life is filled in through the private recollections of the men, whose relation to each other, through Jack, is rich and complex in its very ordinariness. No earth-shattering secrets are revealed, no confessions are made, and no one moment can be said to have changed everything. The shifts in loyalty, love, and direction are as minute and as seemingly buffeted by the gentle prodding of fate as those of 3-D life. Jack isn’t memorialized as a man who did some monumental thing, but as a man who loved his wife unreservedly and without ceasing, who snipped his daughter’s existence from his mind practically upon her birth, who raged at his son for making a mockery of his shop sign: Dodds & Son Family Butchers. Along the way, the other characters recall the dull, the sad, and the twinge-inducing bits and pieces—of borrowed money, missing children and miserable wives, inexplicable joy and comradeship.
Schepisi cuts between three present-time stories—the car trip; Amy’s visit to see June; and a Thames-side conversation between Amy and Ray, who have a bit of a complex history themselves—to the numerous and often very brief flashbacks. Those go all the way back to World War II, including a segment of the Blitz, through wife-meeting, child-rearing, and the complexities of grown-up life that ensue. (There’s only one short scene of the young Lenny, recovering from a fight with a slice of one of Jack’s skirt steaks over his eye.) For the most part, the characters’ memories were made in pubs, where people meet to both escape and assess the lives they’re leading. There’s no preciosity in the gatherings, though, and Schepisi directs with a delicacy that allows the characters to fill the room. It’s as if he just walked in and half-overheard the robust, rambling interplay among four guys down the bar.
Last Orders contains some of the best ensemble acting of recent years but never feels like a tour de force of screen lions in winter roaring ostentatiously at each other. Caine, a classic actor of the evening, bothers to turn in a real performance, and he does so with a room-filling ferocity in inverse relation to his screen time, and Hopkins is unexpectedly low-key and moving, particularly in his scenes with Mirrin, who is as extraordinary as ever. It is Jack who affects Vic, Lenny, and Vince, who provided a catalyst during his life and possesses their thoughts upon death. But it’s Amy’s beauty, her concentrated joy, her lived-in soul, that buffets Ray like a tornado and, you realize only at the very end, always has. Schepisi’s lovely film has the burnish of age and care and the relaxed pace of real-time conversation, but its undercurrents, like the turbulence below the surface of daily life, are deep and strong. CP