In The Big Chill, a corpse provides the catalyst for reunion and revelation. Flashbacks to Kevin Costner still alive ended up on the cutting-room floor. In Last Orders, a corpse also functions as a magnet for camaraderie and reminiscence. But Michael Caine's Jack Dodds is a domineering presence, both before his death and after. He is the life of the party for the blokes who gather regularly at their local pub in Bermondsey, a working-class district of London. When he dies, Jack continues to dominate the conversation. Four friends honor the deceased's request that his ashes be scattered off the Margate pier. Like Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims, the four set out from Southwark on a solemn comic journey, a mission of special delivery. Making their way to tawdry Margate, about 75 miles from London, in an auto dealer's new Mercedes, they pass the Canterbury Cathedral, and they also pass water. They stop at the Sailors' Memorial in Chatham and at a hops farm in Kent. By the time they get to Margate, they are reconciled to mortality and ready to part from Jack.
The British tradition of brilliant ensemble acting did not die with Gosford Park. In Last Orders, Caine is merely first among equals in a cast that includes: Bob Hoskins as Jack's best friend, Ray, a gambling man lucky in nothing but the races; David Hemmings as Lenny, a pugnacious former pugilist; Tom Courtenay as Vic, a mellow mortician; and Ray Winstone as Vince, a vulgarian who has never quite adapted to disclosure that he is Jack's adopted son. While the four fulfill the dead man's last request, Jack's widow, Amy (Mirren), makes her final visit to their severely retarded daughter, June. Institutionalized for most of fifty years, June has been banished from her father's conversation. "The best thing we can do, Amy," insists Jack shortly after the birth of his only daughter, "is forget all about her."
Last Orders is the memorable story of one day in the posthumous life of a Bermondsey butcher. It uncovers secrets and surprises about ostensibly ordinary folk. A complex network of flashbacks explains Jack's dying wish and the authority it commands for his erstwhile drinking buddies. As earlier versions of the principal characters, actors JJ Feild, Cameron Fitch, Nolan Hemmings, Anatol Yusef, Kelly Reilly, and Stephen McCole do not quite mesh with what they become. The title of the film, Last Orders, alludes not merely to a dead man's will but also to the term for the final round of drinks before closing. "It ain't like your regular sort of day," are the words with which Ray, ordering a pint at Jack's favorite pub, begins the Booker Prize-winning novel from which Fred Schepisi adapted his film. Graham Swift constructed his novel as a polyphony of seven voices, switching the point of view from chapter to chapter. The camera cannot quite duplicate that effect, but it is intent on tracing Jack's claims on each character. And we certainly hear their vernacular voices, though for viewers not fluent in working-class Bermondsey English, subtitles might have been in order.
Last Orders is an unheroic look at "the greatest generation," men whose battles did not conclude with World War II. Not all their women were willing to be long-suffering. These are lives of noisy desperation. Jack is an old soldier whose life Ray saved during combat in North Africa, and his last orders for Ray involve a scheme to free Amy from the heavy mortgage — 20,000 pounds — he leaves behind on his butcher shop. "It's all a gamble," says Jack, and his description of the strategem he devises for posthumous solvency might serve as an epigraph to Schepisi's risky adaptation. "But man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave," is the epigraph, from Sir Thomas Browne, that Swift chose for his novel. Capturing the splendor and pomposity of mortal man, Schepisi wins his bet.
"Autopsy of the English working class"
Writ. & dir. Fred Schepisi, from the novel by Graham Swift; feat. Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings, Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, Ray Winston, JJ Feild, Kelly Reilly, Cameron Fitch, Nolan Hemmings, Anatol Yusef (R)