written and directed by Fred Schepisi with Michael Caine, Helen Mirren, Ray Winstone, Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtenay, and David Hemmings opens March 1 at Guild 45th
MAYBE MACARTHUR had it right. As the vets of WWII slowly fade away, we're racing to commemorate the Greatest Generation in print, marble, and movies. Even if war isn't the direct subject of Last Orders (adapted from Graham Swift's Booker Prize-winning 1996 novel), it profoundly shapes the memories of three aged men who gather one day to scatter the ashes of a cancer-stricken friend. All four fought in WWII (recalled in quick glimpses), and this mission represents the "last orders" of deceased butcher Jack Dodds (Michael Caine), whose rebellious car dealer son, Vince (Sexy Beast's Ray Winstone), chauffeurs them to the sea. (For these Brits, "last orders" also means "last call" at the favorite pub where they fortify themselves before their somber errand.)
On her own separate mission that day is widowed Amy (Helen Mirren), who'll visit the retarded adult daughter she and Jack institutionalized some four decades earlier. June doesn't recognize her own mother; her father never even came to visit.
Bloody cheerful, eh? The wonder of it is that while Orders may sound thoroughly depressing (with wintry gray English skies to suit), it's a wonderfully layered, revelatory, and, yes, life-affirming picture. Funerals are for the living, as they say, and this procession is anything but funereal. To begin with, there's the men's constant good-natured ribbing, joking, and punning—honed over decades of friendship. (Regular pub stops are a must during the laugh- and argument-filled drive.) Undertaker Vic (Tom Courtenay) is the stable dry wit of the bunch, while bellicose Lenny (Blow Up's David Hemmings) is the agitator. Bookie Ray (Bob Hoskins), a.k.a. Raysie, a.k.a. Lucky, is Jack's best friend from the war, a man quietly devoted to the Dodds family.
Every man in the car is flooded with memories of Jack and of their own lives and families intertwining with his in working-class South London (accent alert!). Given that the novel is a retrospective affair framed by multiple recollections over the course of one long day, Orders represents a considerable narrative challenge for Australian writer-director Fred Schepisi, best known for Roxanne, A Cry in the Dark, and Six Degrees of Separation.
HIS FIRST DECISION is to commingle the dead and the living, the past and the present. Employing some very quick, adroit cutting reminiscent of Six Degrees, Jack the memory and Jack the man become interchangeable. He's suddenly grinning there at the bar in midconversation; the camera turns round and everyone's a decade or two younger (with bad period hairstyles, particularly poor Vince's, to match). More than a box of ashes lugged around unceremoniously in a plastic shopping bag, the charismatic butcher is a constant lively presence—not a ghost—and his wife, son, and cronies treat him as such. "You ain't seen the last of Jack yet," says Lucky in Orders' very first scene.
Indeed, each (aged) character has his or her youthful incarnation, allowing Schepisi to deftly sketch, in repeated flashbacks, the past allegiances, grudges, trysts, and reconciliations that bind any group of friends together over the long haul. The winningly cocksure smile of a 20-year-old seamlessly transforms itself into the rueful chuckle of a septuagenarian who's lived (or died) to know better. (Orders is set circa 1989 or '90.)
Such quick juxtaposition of teenagers humping in fields and gray-haired types on park benches might seem cruel, but it isn't. The movie asks: What is life if not transition? Resentful children age into wounded adults; families break apart and mend separately. Yet the bar songs and jests remain the same at the Coach and Horses. Each pint contains an eternity.
Profoundly respectful of a fine novel (though a few subplots are hard to sort out), Schepisi sees to the root of Swift's writerly intentions: Decades are inseparable from instants, as individuals are from groups. Personal histories are bound together, in which sense Orders, a kind of road movie, is really about the journey through time. For the funeral party, recalling Jack's life is to recall their own. As Amy says, "The living come first," but the dead come along for the ride.