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United Kingdom/Germany 2002
Directed by
Fred Schepisi
110 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Last Orders

Synopsis: Jack Dodds (Michael Caine) a butcher from South London has died and his three best friends and his son have the task of carrying out his last wish - to scatter his ashes to the sea at Margate.

Critical praise for Last Orders has been lavish, with most reviewers giving it their full complement of stars or close to it. I'm not so ebullient. Not because this is not a skilfully-crafted film, serious in intent and with fine performances but because its rather unadventurous. And by that I don't mean there's not enough action.

The film works on two levels. Firstly there's the story and its characters. Adapted from a Booker prize winning novel by Graham Swift (itself a re-visitation of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying) to which, by all accounts it is very faithful, it portrays the intersecting lives of a group friends - besides Jack, there's his three best mates (Tom Courtenay, Bob Hoskins and David Hemmings), his wife (Helen Mirren) and son (Ray Winstone).. The point is that these ordinary people have their loves and losses, ambitions and disappointments, bring happiness to each other, cause pain etc. within the boundaries of their South London working class world - it's not as stridently programmatic as Noel Coward/David Lean's This Happy Breed but that's the terrain, charming in a untutored way.

Then there's the enactment of the story. Like those West End plays that feature well-known film stars, Schepisi has assembled a wonderful collection of some of the best known faces of British cinema (with Winstone as the baby).Without in anyway belittling Schepisi's work, a good deal of the pleasure to be derived from this film is in watching the performances of these grey eminences. And whilst some have more to do than others they are all excellent. David Hemmings is outstanding as the alcoholic, embittered fruit-and-veg man, Michael Caine is, as usual, great value, Tom Courtenay is a study of understatement and even Bob Hoskin's cuddly Cockney schtick is bearable.

But that, for me is where the film gets stuck. Good as this is, you've seen it all before. It's English blokey pub-based camaraderie forged in war-time and ambivalently related to women as tarts or saints (cf the Lean film). Whilst fidelity to Swift's text was clearly Schepisi's objective, his execution is very literal. Much has been made of his successful recreation of the processes of memory but I found the wartime reenactments unnecessary - it would have been more interesting to see these conjured up through dialogue for instance. Equally the expedition to Margate through the picturesque Kentish countryside is long-winded, the sidetrip to Canterbury Cathedral seeming to have no purpose other than pictorial indulgence. The exception to this is the relationship of Helen Mirren's Amy to her mentally-handicapped daughter, Jane. Mirren's portrayal is spot on (I do not know if the Jane character was an actor or not but she was very effective) in all its devoted ordinariness.

For some reason hanging prominently over Michael Caine's hospital bed is a sign - Nil by Mouth. As Jack is for the duration of the film clearly able to eat, the sign seems to be a rather pointed reference to Gary Oldham's 1997 film of the same name, also set in South London and in which Ray Winstone starred as a particularly ugly character in a dysfunctional working class family environment. This genially affable tale is clearly meant to present a quite different picture of this sort-of-happy breed.




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