BERLIN 2002: Last Rites, "Last Orders"; Schepisi's Quiet Triumph
by Scott Foundas
(indieWIRE/02.15.02) — Graham Swift‘s novel “Last Orders,” is a lovely paean to lives half-lived, forever waylaid at the starting gate, desperate to break out. It’s the story of three 70ish friends, who’ve known each other longer than most of them would care to admit, gathering together to mourn the loss of a fourth, fallen mate. And it’s about the way you can wake up one morning to discover that your whole life has passed you by and you didn’t even realize it. (The title is a precisely chosen double entendre: closing time in a pub and in a life.) Swift’s novel, which won the Booker Prize, weaves together past and present, nimbly jumping between eras and narrators in the space of a sentence or two. In adapting this unconventional piece for the screen, the Australian director Fred Schepisi (who also penned the script) hasn’t mucked things up one bit. As with his similarly innovative filming of John Guare‘s “Six Degrees of Separation” before it, “Last Orders” discovers marvelously simple ways of transposing Swift’s digressive, nonlinear structure to the screen. It’s an unerringly faithful translation that pares down (as must be done) without dumbing-down.
“They calls it the Coach and Horses, but it ain’t never gone nowhere.” Those words, spoken by the diminutive Ray “Lucky” Johnson (Bob Hoskins), become a kind-of mantra for “Last Orders.” It’s a joke, of course, a play on the words that make up the name of the tavern where betting-man Ray, undertaker Vic (Tom Courtenay), fruit-seller Lenny (David Hemmings) and butcher Jack (Michael Caine) have always gathered. But it’s a metaphor too, for the way we spend so much of our lives stuck in neutral, wondering if we were destined for better things, blaming others for our own inaction. It’s an irony: a pub that’s really a coach, or vice-versa. Just like the butcher’s son who really wanted to be a doctor and the scrap-merchant’s son who really wanted to be a jockey, but who took over the family businesses instead.
“Last Orders” unfolds as a road trip. Jack is dead and gone, and Ray, Vic, Lenny and Jack’s son Vince (Ray Winstone) have convened to honor Jack’s last request: that his ashes be scattered over the sea in Margate, where he and his wife Amy (Helen Mirren) once honeymooned, in happier days. Only Amy won’t be coming along; she’ll be tending, as per usual, to her (and Jack’s) 50-year-old, retarded daughter, June, institutionalized in a home, because that’s how things were done back then. Amy’s hardly missed one of her twice-weekly visits to June all these years, but she could never get Jack to come; she could never even get Jack to admit Amy existed. Out of sight, out of mind. And so, the journey begins, with literal and figurative stops along the way: stops for gas; stops for lunch; and zigzag detours in the minds of the journeymen, as a sight, sound or word triggers a remembrance of things past.
The film flashes back and forth between several time periods from 1939 to the present, and cinematographer Brian Trufano makes an invaluable contribution. His contemporary scenes are lit by harsh, chalky daylight — light that makes everything seem bleaker than it really is; then, as we move further back in time, the colors become more saturated, suggesting the warm brushstrokes of memory, the way we remember the essences of things more than the things themselves. But the real strength of “Last Orders” is in the way Schepisi gives each character his or her due, the way he manages, in the shorthand style of a 2-hour film, to convey so much of the subtext that Swift unfolds over a much longer, even more fragmented text. All of the story’s key themes — the pressures imposed by parents, the disappointments put forth by children, the restless striving for some abstract notion of happiness — shine through, glistening. Schepisi does something more than even that: he makes you consider your own mortality. Watching the film, you think about your own close circle of friends, getting older and how your own last request might be honored. And it’s not depressing at all — it’s elating, for such is the film’s unforced warmth, its genuine marvel at the legacy a common man can leave behind.
“Last Orders” is brought to life by Schepisi’s peerless cast, which, among other things, brings together three key actors of the 1960s British New Wave (Caine, Courtenay and Hemmings) who have never appeared together in a film before. As the dying man, Caine is particularly moving, beautifully inverting his sprawling, gangly physicality to suggest weakness, pain and sorrow. Hoskins, in one of his very best performances, really gets what it means, physically and psychologically, to be short. And Mirren — fragile and bird-like, head bowed, shoulders scrunched against the wind — is as good as she has ever been (which is pretty damn good). Schepisi has also cast a fine ensemble of young talents as the youthful incarnations of the characters (including Hemmings’ own son, Nolan, as the young Lenny), and their achievements are more than mere acts of mimicry. Both casts, old and young, possess superb awareness of how these characters relate to one another. The interaction between performers has supremely voyeuristic appeal; you feel like you’re eavesdropping on real people’s lives.
A friend of mine has stated that “Last Orders” is too much like a film for television, but I’m not sure if he means that as praise or derision. In one respect, “Last Orders” does contain any number of elements that might cause it to derail. It’s about death and reminiscing and redemption; in part, it even deals with a retarded child. All things presumed to be the domain of television, where they are regularly treated with a heavy, sentimental hand. There’s no heavy sentiment in “Last Orders,” but much of what is good about the film does derive from the best television. The film is intimately constructed, made up of the vast, quiet spaces that give the characters the breathing room most movies make you crave. Like the old Coach itself, it isn’t in a hurry to go anywhere, but stick with it, and you’ll end up on a journey of considerable expanse.