Last Orders
Starring: Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, David Hemmings, Tom Courtenay, Helen Mirren, Ray Winstone

Fred Schepisi

Writing credits: Graham Swift (novel), Fred Schepisi
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Rated: Not Rated
  (U.K. 2002)

Four of the stars of
Last Orders: as they were, as young actors portray them in Schepisi's film, and as they look today. (left to right, top row) Michael Caine in Alfie (1966), J.J. Feild as "Young Jack", Michael Caine as "Old Jack", Tom Courtenay (with Julie Christie) in Billy Liar (1963), Cameron Fitch as "Young Vic", Tom Courtenay as "Old Vic".
(left to right, bottom row)
David Hemmings in Blow-Up (1966), Nolan Hemmings as "Young Lenny", David Hemmings as "Old Lenny", Helen Mirren in O Lucky Man (1968), Kelly Reilly as "Young Amy", Helen Mirren as "Old Amy".

Once upon a time, I discovered British actors. It was the mid-1960's, when All Things British were wonderful, when the Beatles were still special and Yardley was no longer about old-lady cologne but about hip young cosmetics worn by the likes Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. And then there were the British actors; dashingly handsome young men with cool accents: Albert Finney in TOM JONES, David Warner in MORGAN!, Alan Bates and Terence Stamp in FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, Tom Courtenay in BILLY LIAR, and of course the Mother Of All British Actors, Sean Connery as the perfect blisteringly cool James Bond for the 60's. To a Jewish girl from New Jersey just approaching adolescence, these scrawny, azure-eyed, long-eyelashed, sensitive, soft-spoken, exotic creatures were the perfect objects of worship; forming the 60's equivalent of the boy band.

But the sixties are long over, and the ravages of time are perfectly captured in Fred Schepisi's adaptation of Graham Swift's novel, Last Orders. Our memories of its cast affectionately and mournfully reflect the film's reflections on experience, time, and aging.

The film centers on four old WWII veterans and friends who have apparently spent much of their adult postwar lives sitting at the corner pub, continuing their wartime bonding over pints (and in one case, scotch), as their family and business lives continue to intertwine. Butcher Jack Dodds (Michael Caine), has just passed away, and his friends, undertaker Vic (Tom Courtenay), gambler Ray (Bob Hoskins) and retired boxer-turned-greengrocer Lenny (David Hemmings) have met one last time at the Coach and Horses to accompany Jack's son Vince (Ray Winstone) in following Jack's last orders, to have his ashes scattered from the pier at Margate. Jack's wife Amy (Helen Mirren) has chosen not to accompany them, as she has her own goodbye to take care of; to her and Jack's severely retarded and autistic daughter June, whom Jack pretended never existed, but whom she has visited faithfully for fifty years.

Swift's book tells the story from the viewpoint of the various characters, and Schepisi's film takes a similarly multilayered structure, resembling almost a tour through the photograph albums of these four old friends. Yet the stories weave together perfectly, and while the film's plot contains some surprises, there is nothing at all disjointed about it. Though the film is somewhat slow to get started, and the protagonists' thick Cockney dialect at first makes one wish that Schepisi had included the distraction of subtitles, once we become acquainted with these characters, their vocal quirks, and Kate Williams's exquisite editing fall perfectly into place.

It's still early in the year, and the Dogs of February are just beginning to recede into the oblivion they so richly deserve, but this gathering of veterans is as good an ensemble as you're likely to see this year. Michael Caine, who looks better in his sixties than he did in his twenties, can't help but let the scamp that is his stock in trade peek through the disappointed facade of Jack Dodds. Like so many men of his generation, it's obvious that in some ways, life has never quite lived up to the excitement of his war experience, even if it's been devoid of the fear associated with live combat. Jack has always loved his wife, but cannot and will not share with her the burden of guilt associated with visiting their damaged daughter. Even more disappointing is his son Vince's unwillingness to enter the family business, choosing instead to run an automotive dealership. Yet despite the disappointments of his life, Jack has retained his sense of humor, even in the face of death: "You should always hope to go first," he tells Ray on his deathbed, "Leavin' ain't's the going on that's hard."

As Jack's wife, Amy, Helen Mirren is nothing short of astonishing. When we first see her, she resembles the same grim personality she portrays in GOSFORD PARK, yet we quickly see the layers of experience, of emotions, of life that this woman has lived. Amy has carried her burden alone for her entire marriage, and has never quite been able to forgive her husband for his refusal to acknowledge their daughter, with only a short-lived liaison with his friend Ray (Bob Hoskins) providing respite. As Ray, Hoskins is a bit more problematic. Hoskins can be a problematic actor, but not here. In some ways, he's never really escaped the ghost of his Eddie Valiant character from WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, and even when playing somewhat of a serious role, there's a twinkly quality about him that offsets his pugnacious face and lumpy body.

David Hemmings' Lenny and Tom Courtenay's Vic are supporting characters, but Hemmings especially makes the most of his moments. Perhaps the one actor who has aged more badly than Albert Finney, Hemmings, sporting Baron Harkonnen's old eyebrows from David Lynch's DUNE, manages to inhabit the dissipated bulldog that is his body today, daring the viewer to say a word about the pretty boy he used to be, one still embodied in his son, Nolan Hemmings, who plays Lenny as a young man. Courtenay, a courtly, still handsome, and somewhat wistful Vic, is the most centered of the group.

The casting of the younger versions of these characters ranges from the inspired to the incomprehensible. Of particular note is newcomer J.J. Feild as the young Jack. Feild could easily be Jude Law's somewhat less gorgeous but no less magnetic younger brother. He's the perfect young version of the perfect Caineian scamp. Feilds' scenes with Kelly Reilly as the young Amy, with Anatol Yusef as young Ray, and with Hemmings' young Lenny, shot as they are by Brian Tufano with the gold and rose-colored glow of nostalgia, border on the magical. These scenes, in which we see the characters with whom we are now entwined in the full flower of hopeful youth, stand in stark contrast to the dashed hopes and dreams of maturity; in reliving them; Vic, Ray, and Lenny are finally able to say goodbye and move on. If the horrifying wigs worn by the old actors as they play their slightly younger selves twenty-odd years ago seem to have been purchased from the Joe Pesci Shop for the Follicularly Challenged, it's only a mild complaint.

LAST ORDERS is more than just a showcase of some great British acting. It's in some ways a fond, even wistful look at a working class British life that seems to be disappearing. Like YOU CAN COUNT ON ME two years ago, this small movie about ordinary people, shines like the sun on decades-old memories .

- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2002 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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