Anyone wanting a master class in English ensemble acting who’s already seen and savored the work of luminaries like Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi and Michael Gambon in “Gosford Park” can now get a second helping in Fred Schepisi’s “Last Orders.” It features juicy roles for some of the best-known names of the golden age of British cinema in the early 1960s–Michael Caine, David Hemmings and Tom Courtenay–while offering even greater scope to comparative youngsters Bob Hoskins and Mirren (again), as well as a major part for one of today’s fastest-rising English stars, Ray Winstone. The result is a thespian feast; the effortless ease of the interplay among them all is a marvel, although to be honest Hemmings and especially Courtenay are relatively underutilized, their characters never being as fully fleshed-out as the others’.
Schepisi, moreover, has fashioned from Graham Swift’s novel an intricately-structured collage of past and present, arranging the various sequences so nimbly that the buildups and explanations are always crystal clear, despite the myriad shifts of time and space (while leaving his able performers ample room to bring the characters to vivid life). The combination of acting brilliance and filmmaking skill makes the picture, if not a joy to watch (the inherently poignant subject matter precludes that), a deeply satisfying experience.
All that being true, it has to be admitted that if one sets aside the formidable talent on display both in front of the camera and behind it, what you’re left with in “Last Orders” isn’t much more than a geriatric soap opera of resignation and regret mingled with occasional bursts of remembered happiness. (One might see it as a metaphor for Britain’s decline from youthful confidence to aging greyness of spirit, but that seems rather a stretch.) The set-up is simple: three pub buddies–Vic, an undertaker (Courtenay), Ray, a gambler (Hoskins) and Lenny, a failed boxer-turned-grocer (Hemmings)–gather for a trip to scatter the ashes of their departed pal Jack (Caine), a butcher, from the pier of a seaside town where the dead man had honeymooned with his wife Amy (Helen Mirren). The widow won’t accompany them on the trip–she’s obligated to visit her metally handicapped, long-institutionalized daughter, whose existence her late husband had ignored their whole marriage–but the departed’s son Vince (Winstone) will drive the codgers to their destination in a beautiful car from his own dealer’s showroom.
In the course of the journey, of course, the past is revealed–and as it happens many of the revelations are precisely what one would have expected. We get to see the courtship and early married bliss of Jack and Amy (played in flashback by J.J. Feild and Kelly Reilly), the comradeship between Jack and Ray (Anatol Yusef) in World War II, the breakup of Ray’s marriage and his brief flirtation with Amy, and the growing estrangement between Jack and Vince. There are also periodic allusions to the origins of animosity between Vince and the perpetually-angry Lenny and to the dying Jack’s desperate need to pay off a loan shark before he expires. None of this is at all surprising, and some of the resolutions seem pat indeed (the horse- racing episode that closes the tale of Jack’s financial woe, for instance, is brutally manipulative). Yet such is the degree of affection that the audience has for the older members of the cast that it easily overcomes any objections you might raise to the narrative turns. (Happily, Feild, Reilly and Yusef are amiable enough substitutes for them in the flashback scenes; Cameron Fitch, as the younger Vic, and Nolan Hemmings, as the younger Lenny, have far less to do, though the latter’s physical resemblance to his father is surely striking. And if the flashbacks have a sappily nostalgic glow about them, that’s probably a natural failing.)
As for Schepisi’s contribution, one has to admire not only the structural precision he brings to the proceedings, but his generosity to the performers and his sense of decorum–he’s always been a rather genteel director, and by holding back here at points when matters could have slipped into bathos (a few scenes showing Laura Miller as Jack and Amy’s daughter June apart), he shows a degree of respect for viewers that many helmers surely lack. (The final scene on the cold, windswept pier is especially well-done, marked by some grim humor as well as sadness; and the way in which the camera then pans toward the desolate sea is a masterstroke.) There’s one drawback to his gentlemanly approach: the dialogue interplay sometimes comes across as insufficiently uncontrolled, almost as though everyone was standing back a bit as each actor came forward to take his place in the spotlight and then fade back into the ensemble. A touch more messiness might have made things grittier and more real.
Finally, one has to note that a couple of difficulties will remain for American audiences in this very British picture. One is the accents, which are frequently so thick that one might have some trouble deciphering the dialogue (especially the jokes). The other is the title, which on thus side of the Atlantic might be translated as “Final Request.” On the other hand, given the frequency with which the male characters stop off in pubs for a couple of pints, “Last Call” might have been an even more appropriate moniker.