last orders (2002)

director: fred schepisi

michael caine, helen mirren, bob hoskins, tom courtenay, david hemmings, ray winstone

Considering the cast assembled for the film, it would be easy to judge Last Orders harshly if it didn't live up to even a fraction of its expectations.

Based on a novel by Graham Swift, the film follows four men as they drive south from London to Margate, a British seaside resort, to scatter the ashes of Jack, the first of their little clique to die, and its lynchpin member. The car is a luxury Mercedes provided by Jack's son Vince (Ray Winstone), a flash car dealer who disappointed his father by leaving the family butcher business.

Jack's wife has stayed in town to visit the severly retarded and institutionalized daughter her husband would never acknowledge. Along with Jack's three mates in the car with Vince, everyone has more than a half century of memories of Jack, which director Fred Schepisi allows to spin out in an increasingly elaborate set of flashbacks.

The story is obviously a bit of colloquial British slife of life, but it's brought to life by a cast that's hard to beat. Jack is played by Michael Caine, whose amount of screentime, for a dead man, is made more than generous by the ricochet flashbacks. Bob Hoskins plays Lucky, his best friend, whose brief affair with Jack's wife Amy -- played by Helen Mirren -- is both his fondest memory and greatest source of guilt. Tom Courtenay and David Hemmings are Vic and Lenny, an even-handed undertaker and an obnoxious former boxer, respectively, who deal with Jack's death with equally respective degrees of philosophical acceptance and frightened unease.

The film is about Jack's death to the degree that Titanic was about an iceberg; it's more of an excuse to allow the magnificent cast to build a set of characters, examined in detail, over decades. As literary adaptations go, it's entirely faithful to Swift's book, despite the entirely cinematic, death-defying leaps made by the flashbacks. Thanks to the perfect casting of the younger versions of the characters -- the young Lenny is played by Hemmings' own son, Nolan -- the film has the aura of humble but undeniable quality that the best British cinema has always maintained. 

In truth, the story is a well-worn, fuzzy bit of woolen, neither grandly dramatic nor shocking, and might just as well have made for a decent BBC serial, but the cast, real pros with impeccable skills, makes it a joy to watch.