Last Orders
directed by Fred Schepisi
(Sony, 2001)

Charming Jack, rogue Jack, callous Jack, loving Jack, butcher shop owner Jack is dead.

In Graham Swift's novel, when London butcher Jack Dodd breathes his last, his longtime friends move in to fulfill his request: scatter his ashes over the ocean at Margate.

Fred Schepisi adapted Swift's story into Last Orders, a film in which not much happens -- but everything changes.

Schepisi's used to working with real talent -- he directed Meryl Streep twice, in Plenty and A Cry in the Dark, and handled the screenplay for the latter. Here, he also does double duty in the writer's and director's chairs and has a full sense of what he's trying to pull off. Having a fabulous British ensemble to put your words into action doesn't hurt, either.

Essentially, the story is simple: It takes a day in the life of Jack's three buddies from the pub, his widow and his son, and puts the men on the road to Margate with Jack's ashes in tow. The rest is told in flashback, from the early days of Jack's marriage with Amy, to how the friends met. That background's sometimes flush with post-war promise, sometimes painful in its numbed hopes. Add some pretty heavy-duty Cockney accents and, on the surface, that's it.

But in the hands of Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings and Bob Hoskins, the friendship of half a century, with all its rocky spots and unspoken love, becomes something more.

These men aren't of a generation known for public emoting or self-pity, and Caine and company are actors who can let you know what they mean, what they want, without depending on a script to spell it out for them.

Matching them scene for scene is Helen Mirren as Jack's Amy, a woman whose grace is tempered with sadness, and whose half-century since the war has borne a heavy disappointment: a daughter, June, born with mental retardation and squirreled away in an institution. Unacknowledged by Jack, even at the end, June's sole connection to the outside world is Amy's weekly visits.

Mirren possesses such wrenching pain and such strength in what are essentially monologues that those visits more than hold their own against the counterpoint ofJack's friends and son on their ash-scattering pilgrimage.

Just as Amy sees her visits to June as what should be done, none of the men sees the trip to Margate as something to fuss over. They save their pain for the privacy of a pub's restroom, and take the edge off the rest with a pint or two along the way.

Their relationship with Vince, Jack's son, is no less complicated than their friendship for each other. A successful car dealer, Vince's failure to follow Jack into the butchering business sticks in the craw of some of his father's friends much as it did in his father's.

In flashback, the awkwardness of Jack's relationship with Vince is explained, the estrangement of Ray (Hoskins) from his ex-wife and daughter, the friendship of Jack and Ray and Amy. None of it is earth-shattering, none of it is far-fetched, and that only deepens its impact.

The gift of Last Orders is its skill in showing how even the most ordinary of bonds are extraordinary. Not a bad thing to consider.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 30 August 2003

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