Filling A Tall Order

In 'Last Orders,' director Fred Schepisi makes a powerful movie that brings together friends to fulfill a butcher's dying wish. It's like Chekhov with a British accent.

April 05, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Last Orders has the most improbably beautiful climax in contemporary movies: Four blokes fighting gusts and drizzle as they soldier down the sea walk in Margate, England, to empty an urn into the windswept waters. By then, the writer-director, Fred Schepisi, working from Graham Swift's Booker Prize-winning novel, has revealed the earthy gallantry within these life-worn friends. And he's unfolded their group sacraments so fully we sense the presence of the pal who isn't there as they commit his ashes to the deep.

Schepisi has made great films of many kinds before, including the historical drama The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, the romantic comedy Roxanne and the movie version of the stage hit Six Degrees of Separation. In Last Orders he pulls off a minor miracle: It's like Chekhov done in cockney.

With the sort of un-self-conscious perfection movie-lovers associate with Vittorio De Sica or Jean Renoir, Schepisi has made a rich, funny, roughly tender movie that considers mortality in every sense - mortal life as well as death. What is it about? Chances risked and ignored, traditions honored and spurned, family bonds and friendships sealed and tested. It's about the uneasy accommodations we make with strokes of fate.

It's about all those ripples of feeling that we send into the world throughout our years - and about how, if we're lucky, they connect often and well enough with the feelings rippling out from others to redeem us in the end.

The charismatic Jack (Michael Caine), the last in a line of family butchers, has left behind "last orders" for his remains to be dropped off the Margate coast. For reasons we discover gradually, Jack's widow, Amy (Helen Mirren), chooses not to go on this farewell trip: Instead, she pays her regular visit to their severely retarded daughter, June. The task falls to his buddies: the gambler, Ray or "Lucky" (Bob Hoskins), the undertaker Vic (Tom Courtenay), and the boxer-turned-fruit-and-vegetable-salesman Lenny (David Hemmings). Driving them in his Mercedes is Jack's son, Vince (Ray Winstone) - and the car reminds everyone that to his father's deep chagrin, Vince forsook the butcher's shop for a used-car dealership.

All the actors ditch old tricks and plunge themselves chest-high in the material; Hoskins hasn't been this good or this wily in a big-screen movie since The Long Good Friday (1980), while Courtenay is as loose and instinctive as he was in the Angry Young Man films of the '60s.

As the friends journey from their London neighborhood to Margate, detouring to the site of an old hops farm, the War Memorial in Chatham and the cathedral at Canterbury, charged memories and associations flood through all of them: their early courtship and married days, their Second World War service and a parade of pub gatherings during which they celebrate milestones and blow off steam.

The movie generates a combination of concern and curiosity more pressing - and pleasurable - than the jacked-up tension of jeopardy movies. Why did Jack choose Margate, and why is Amy so adamant about not going on this final journey? Why is Vince, in his beefy prime, so tormented by his dad's memory? What does hard drinking, pugnacious Lenny have against Vince? Why does the gambler Ray - a fellow with a twinkling sort of poker face - know Amy's mind so well? What secrets hide beneath the equanimity of the sweet-tempered undertaker Vic? (He has what Jack always wanted: sons to man the family business.)

"That would be telling, wouldn't it?" is the response Jack and the others give to questions they don't want to answer. And those who love this movie may feel the same way: I know I want to be far more protective of the mysteries in this movie than of the hand-me-down enigmas in big chillers. The novel is told first person, in short chapters, by each of the main characters, like a complex musical round for a half-dozen voices. Schepisi comes up with an equivalent structure without resorting to voice-over narration; one camera move or edit and we know whose head we're in.

Extraordinary credit goes to all of the performers, young and old. Caine's father was a fish porter and died in the same hospital where Jack does. One shot of Caine standing erect in his white master butcher's get-up and you understand Jack's pride; one glimpse of him clasping "Raysie" on the shoulders or sweeping Amy in his arms and you sense his need for conviviality and joy. Mirren, as Amy, is amazing - in the midst of mourning, she brings an urgency to each emotion that still makes her fierce and sensual. And the actors who play these two as youths -- J.J. Feild as Jack and Kelly Reilly as Amy - do an uncanny job of matching them in keenness and in luster.

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