The ensemble includes Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtenay and Helen Mirren, and they don't do all that much but ride in cars, sit on park benches, hit some pubs and take in some tourist attractions. But the players are so professional and so comfortable with each other, proving remarkably subtle yet remarkably expressive, that they turn potentially drab material into a touching meditation on death, friendship and loyalty.
Australian writer-director Fred Schepisi adapts Graham Swift's novel of the same name, which won the Booker Prize in 1997. The pun in the title may be lost on American audiences, as "last orders" is British bar slang for "last call." But here it also has the meaning of a final duty, as a handful of elderly friends gather to fulfill the deathbed request of one of their own, Jack Dodds (Caine).
In flashbacks we see Jack as the neighborhood butcher and the driving force of a group of buddies at the Coach and Horses Pub. No matter what his age or physical condition, Jack flirts with young ladies and croons "Blue Bayou" at the drop of a hat, and the vitality of Caine's performance casts a shadow on the ones who survive him.
Jack wished for his ashes to be scattered at Margate Pier, a British seaside resort that looks like one of the most depressing places on Earth. Delivering Jack's remains on the day-long trip are diminutive bookmaker Ray (Hoskins), soft-spoken undertaker Vic (Courtenay) and brash ex-boxer Lenny (David Hemmings), with Jack's son Vince (Sexy Beast's Ray Winstone), a successful car salesman, driving them in his lot's finest Mercedes.
Alternating between first-person narrators, the novel suggested a low-blood-pressure, working-class English version of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. As the foursome makes their way across English highways and fields, each character reminisces about Jack, occasionally recalling grievances and guilt. Meanwhile, Ray silently keeps secret his long-standing feelings for Jack's widow Amy (Mirren).
Directing such films as A Cry in the Dark and Six Degrees of Separation, Schepisi has controlled complicated narratives with grace, making Last Orders' awkward notes seem more striking. Occasionally we hark back to the characters in early middle age, the actors wearing unconvincing hairpieces, like we've stumbled into Toupee Night at the pub. Most effective are the courtship scenes of young Jack and Amy, played by J.J. Feild and Kelly Reilly, who not only look like Caine and Mirren but who are so handsome and sexy they suggest the rose-colored memories of youthful passion.
Mirren frequently plays composed, formidable women so it's fascinating to see her as a softer, less confident character. She makes Amy the kind of lonely, vulnerable soul that Brenda Blethyn typically plays, and she has several touching scenes with her mentally disabled daughter.
The film's flashback conceit can seem too familiar, and the scenery tends toward drizzle and industrial grays, but that doesn't diminish the cast's relaxed characterizations. Hemmings may be the least familiar of the players, but with his guttural voice and bat's-wing eyebrows, he may be the most physically memorable of the group.
A visit to a World War II memorial sets off a round of scenes of Jack and Ray as young soldiers, including a brief camel ride that looks like it was shot in a Sears portrait studio. At times Last Orders feel like an English tribute to the war veterans whom Tom Brokaw called "The Greatest Generation." With their work in this film, Caine, Hoskins and company prove themselves no less great.
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