Combustible Celluloid
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With: Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings
Written by: Fred Schepisi, based on the novel by Graham Swift
Directed by: Fred Schepisi
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality and some language
Running Time: 109
Date: 09/10/2001

Last Orders (2001)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Ashes to ashes

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Australian-born director Fred Schepisi comes so close to the top tier of the second-level list of film directors that he probably deserves to be considered an honorary member of the first-level list. But he's been missing in action for nearly eight years, since 1994's charming I.Q. (though he did some re-shoots on 1997's Fierce Creatures).

He made his mark early with the hard-to-see classic The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and followed it up with a series of excellent for-hire Hollywood pictures including Roxanne, A Cry in the Dark, The Russia House and Six Degrees of Separation.

During that time, he established a brilliant editing style that took complicated plots, such as The Russia House, and made them perfectly clear by juxtaposing different fragments of time. He uses that style again to radiant effect in the smart and warm new Last Orders, a triumphant return to form.

Based on the book by Graham Swift, Last Orders follows three childhood friends as they travel to the seaside to dump the ashes of their dearly departed friend Jack (Michael Caine). Jack's son Vince (Ray Winstone) also comes along for the ride, but Jack's widow, Amy (Helen Mirren) stays to visit their retarded daughter, as she has once a week for the past 50 years.

Two friends, Ray (Bob Hoskins) and Lenny (David Hemmings), meet in their usual hangout, a bar, and wait for the third, Vic (Tom Courtenay), a funeral home director whose job it was to cremate Jack and bring his ashes.

As they hit the road, driving a fancy new car from Vince's car-salesman job, the four friends laugh and joke with each other, and each privately remembers Jack and the ways in which he touched their lives. The memories are bittersweet: Vince feels guilty because he never went into the family business -- as a butcher -- with his dad. Ray remembers the affair he had for six weeks with Jack's wife.

One knockout scene has Ray betting on a horse to raise money that Jack needs to pay off his business debts: Ray watches from the barstool while Jack watches from his hospital bed. The outcome is both exciting and moving.

As if to prolong their trip, or maybe to stave off the inevitable, the friends make several stops along the way -- various monuments, both national and personal, and pubs. But these stops only add more fuel to the memory fire. Through some divine grace, we get a complete and clear picture not only of Jack's life, but of the other men's lives as related to Jack's.

Schepisi combines his refreshingly lovely, crisp, clear-eyed, panoramic photography with his clever cutting, bringing us directly into the memories of these lovely old mates. The film's only drawback is that it relies excessively on wigs and makeup to age the characters back and forth, and it can be distracting. Younger actors cast to play the friends in the early days (David Hemmings' son Nolan Hemmings plays his younger self) work out much better, though.

It's difficult to watch these great actors -- especially shown as their younger selves -- and not think about their collective history in Britain's new wave: Hemmings starred in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up, Courtenay in John Schlesinger's Billy Liar, Mirren in Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! and Caine in Lewis Gilbert's Alfie. Hoskins got off to a later start in films, making the big time in 1980 with The Long Good Friday. Their potency lends the film an even greater push.

The lovely, sad pace of this film filled my heart and made me feel as if I was in the car with these old friends, the damp gray British day chilling the air, the beer from one of the pub stops swimming in my head. It's a most welcome return for Schepisi and a dear, dear little film.

DVD Details: "Last Orders" marks a welcome return from the talented Australian director Fred Schepisi (Six Degrees of Separation), whose masterful use of weather and anamorphic widescreen make it a beautiful, funny, totally alive film experience. Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtenay and David Hemmings play three friends who are charged with driving to the coast to scatter their mate Jack's ashes in the sea. During the trip, they flash back and remember Jack (Michael Caine) and the good and bad times they spent together. Ray Winstone plays Jack's son and Helen Mirren co-stars as Jack's widow. One of my favorite films from this year, and I liked it even better the second time. Schepisi provides a commentary track on Columbia/TriStar's DVD, which also includes trailers for Last Orders, The Age of Innocence and Gandhi.

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