Friday, 23 October 2015

Review of Last Orders (2001)

"Last Orders", Fred Schepisi's 2001 film about a group of very old friends travelling to Margate to scatter the ashes of their friend Jack (Michael Caine), based on the novel by Graham Swift, is an accomplished, good looking, verbally expansive film, acted to perfection, that suffers from near-terminal preciousness. I loved so many aspects of this film, the performances, the look, the stunning dialogue, but it is sentimental to the point of suffocation, and it feels hermetically sealed. Nothing can get into this film.

The performers involved are almost like a who's who of the top brass of British acting talent; Bob Hoskins plays Ray, who we sense was probably closest to Jack; Ray Winstone plays his son Vince, who always disappointed Jack by not going into his butchers business; Tom Courtenay plays Vic, who's the most peaceable member of the group; and David Hemmings plays Lenny, the one of them all who's the biggest sucker for a pint.

Helen Mirren also plays Jack's wife Amy; she doesn't come with the boys to scatter his ashes, instead staying at home to visit their severely disabled daughter June, who Jack has never wanted anything to do with. Theirs was not an unhappy marriage, but we sense that at some point after June's birth their marriage forked, and they spent large parts of it walking side by side but down two different roads.

The whole film is told through an interplay of flashback and the present day, but with flashbacks sometimes leading back to different flashbacks and the flashbacks coming forward not always to the present. Any narrative ambiguities are quelled by good makeup work and well-chosen younger actors who resemble the main stalwarts in motion and gesture if not in the face itself. So we see this old group meet each other, fight in the war together, get married together, and so on. It's a lovely if astoundingly obvious setup.

And it is in the flashbacks that the films preciousness begins to drag it down. There is nothing revealed in them that one could not attempt to decipher simply by watching the first 20 minutes and figuring out the relationships between the characters. For a film dealing ostensibly with grief and the measurement of what your life has been worth in its sum achievements and relationships, it all feels hopelessly safe, more than a little staid. There are the requisite reveals, the conflicts, the ultimate reconciliation with peace, and... What then? It just ends.

Perhaps I am being too harsh on the film;maybe I am expecting more; but I honestly cannot stress the calibre of the technical qualities enough, and the acting alone almost warrants watching it. But they are all in service of a flimsy piece of fluff that has nothing much to say about the subjects that its dealing with; it's almost as if it was directed to Radiohead's maxim of "no alarms and no surprises, please".

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