Call it the art-house, or thinking person's, Ocean's Eleven. If you're in the mood for an all-star ensemble but prefer conversation and reminiscence to thievery, try Last Orders, a Fred Schepisi film that features the strongest lineup of English talent this side of Robert Altman's mega-cast in Gosford Park: Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Helen Mirren, Tom Courtenay and David Hemmings. What's most remarkable is that it doesn't even feel like stunt casting. The film's biggest strength is the same characteristic that may cause people to underrate it: that the group of friends we watch onscreen feel not like England's greatest actors showing off, but rather a group of friends who have indeed known each other for years through life's little triumphs and large tragedies.
If no one singles out any of these performances as award-worthy, it's only because we would expect nothing less from this bunch, or maybe that we expect our stars to be conspicuous and glamorous. Hollywood expects its heroes to play like regular Joes, even though deep down we all know they're not, while England's biggest stars, at least from our perspective, really are everymen and women who've made good. It's a stretch to imagine Julia Roberts clinking beers at the local dive bar, but Bob Hoskins in a village pub looks so natural you wouldn't think twice.
The Coach and Horses is the pub in question, and it's where Ray (Hoskins), Vic (Courtenay), Lenny (Hemmings) and Vince (Winstone) have gathered with the cremated remains of their departed mate Jack (Caine). Jack, a modest butcher like his father before him, always nursed a fantasy of retiring to the seaside by Margate Pier and has left behind a last request to have his ashes dropped into the sea there. His put-upon widow, Amy (Mirren), declines to fulfill the task; her husband has left her in debt to dubious characters and she isn't especially inclined to carry out what seems a frivolous wish. Ray agrees to take on the task himself, and the circle of friends comes along for the ride.
From the novel by Graham Swift. Rated R
Flashbacks naturally ensue, allowing the actors to don a number of wigs, with varying degrees of success, and even transform into younger actors for the really distant flashbacks. The segments with the younger actors are somewhat less successful, but give the guys credit for even trying to step into the shoes of Caine, Hoskins, et al., surely an intimidating prospect for any aspiring star, save perhaps for young Nolan Hemmings, who gets to play his own dad. The flashbacks are deliberately shown out of order, which is a conscious plan: Though not as painstakingly laid out in reverse order as those in Christopher Nolan's Memento, many scenes occur prior to ones we've already seen, deepening our understanding of something we think we already know. It isn't until a good 20 minutes or so into the movie that this process reveals Vince to be Jack's son (which isn't a secret to the characters; they simply never explicitly refer to him as such), which is but the first of many subtle revelations.
But the plot surprises are relatively minor next to the film's major goal of painting a portrait of who these men are, how they lost sight of their youthful ambitions and to what degree they're capable of changing. Jack had just sold the butcher shop when he died, having come to the realization that he had become too set in his ways. Vince, the youngster of the group, is a successful car salesman, who commandeers one of the nicer Mercedeses on the lot for the road trip, but his late pop had always wanted him to continue the family's butcher-shop business. Lenny was a boxer who got knocked out of the game at an early stage, while Ray is a perennial single, having been left by his wife when their daughter headed out to Australia to be married. Ray is also a compulsive gambler on horse races, but he's so well-schooled at it he seldom loses. Amy, meanwhile, is left alone with her severely mentally handicapped daughter, who at the age of 50 languishes in an asylum staring at plush bunnies. Vic is the only one who seems content, and he's an undertaker.
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Lest this sound too much of a downer, it isn't. The movie's more of a wake than a funeral, and while it is often poignant, it's never maudlin; scenes of characters crying take up maybe five minutes of its 109-minute running time. Our leads take every opportunity to stop for a pint, to the extent that one wonders how they manage to subsequently maneuver a vehicle with any degree of success. Caine's Jack is not the sort of guy who wants to depress people when he's gone, and his friends oblige, carting his urn along to all the local watering holes with smiles on their faces and a bit of sadness in their hearts. Chances are you'll feel the same way after watching Last Orders.