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[whitespace] 'Last Orders'
Photograph by Simon Mein

Looking Backward: Helen Mirren remembers better times in 'Last Orders.'

The Past Regained

Old friends revisit the haunts of their youth in acting-rich 'Last Orders'

By Richard von Busack

IN SOME LIGHTS, the elegy piece Last Orders looks like a great movie. I don't think it is, but it does boast a splendid cast. Director Fred Schepisi, adapting Graham Swift's novel, takes all the relationships apart and puts them back together. So what should have been organic in this story is parceled out. The meaty bits, wrapped in pink paper, are tied up neatly, as if they'd come straight from the butcher's shop.

The problem is the necessity of trying to show a group of querulous old buddies as they were in their youth, back when they were soldiers and lovers. A group of friends from the same local pub unites to take care of the ashes of a dead friend, Jack (Michael Caine), who ran a never-successful butcher shop. He wanted his cremated remains poured into the sea off Margate, the Cockney seaside resort, so the old men wend their way to the ocean, stopping for drinks, reminiscences and a few historical sights. It's a rolling wake, the flashbacks coming through to show us what these men were. Their various pasts are as vividly colored as a postcard--whether in the pub they haunted, in an Egyptian brothel (two of the men were with the British Army in North Africa) or in a lyrical sequence of summer hop-picking in Kent. In the last, we see pretty, coltish Kelly Reilly as Amy, Jack's wife. (Later, after a life rocked with disappointments, she becomes Helen Mirren.)

We've seen these actors in their youth and now in their old age, facing up to the inevitable end. This foretelling of our eventual loss bears more weight than the film's fictional story of loss. Caine, who once had a job carrying around haunches of meat at the Smithfield meat market, brings dignity and frailty to the end of a quiet life. The rest of the drinking buddies are Vic (Tom Courtenay), an undertaker; Lenny (David Hemmings), an ex-boxer; and Jack's best friend, Ray (Bob Hoskins), who seemingly got the most fun out of life. Their driver is the deceased's adopted son; Ray Winstone, not playing a pathological character or a criminal for a change, has never been better.

In the remorseless way Last Orders finds beauty in duty, the film represents something of a throwback all the way past the Angry Young Man films straight to the age of Terence Rattigan. You need a director from the colonies to take in the British ethos of sacrifice without complaint so uncritically (Schepisi is Australian). And while the acting's unimpeachable, it's the weaving story that ultimately lets the film down. As Ian McKellen said about playing Chekhov, this kind of acting is like mountain climbing--only successful if the cast is roped together. The many flashbacks sever the ropes. We see beautiful, precise acting in a televisionesque milieu. The plot holds no jagged edges on which viewers might wound themselves.

Last Orders (Unrated; 109 min.), directed by Fred Schepisi, written by Schepisi and Graham Swift, based on Swift's novel, photographed by Brian Tufano and starring Michael Caine, Helen Mirren, Tom Courtenay, Ray Winstone and Bob Hoskins, plays at Camera One in San Jose and the Aquarius in Palo Alto.

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From the March 7-13, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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