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Last Orders

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Last Orders

Starring: Michael Caine, Helen Mirren
Director: Fred Schepisi
Rated: R
RunTime: 109 Minutes
Release Date: December 2001
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Ray Winstone, Bob Hoskins, David Hemmings, George Innes, Tom Courtenay

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

What do people talk about during funerals? If they're lucky they've listened to inspiring speakers address the life of the deceased and comment later on the proceedings. Conversations at these morbid affairs range from the expected crying with expression of sympathy for those closest to the deceased to predictions on the stock market and on the horses. If the departed has been cremated without much of a service and close friends and family take the ashes to be scattered, they talk about the poor man or woman while driving to the place of dispersal, usually the ocean. This is just what "Last Orders," written and directed by Fred Schepisi from the Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name by Graham Swift, is about. Though much of the talky story looks as though it could find a place on one of the high-minded stages of a New York theater like the Promenade on the Upper West Side, Schepisi lends an appropriately cinematic feel by repeated flashbacks, showing the small burial party and what's left of their buddy selected scenes from their former days. By the time the movie concludes, we know pretty much what has made these people the way they are today. The film, however, is for a specialized audience, one willing to patiently have Schepisi peel the literary onion so that each disclosure brings us closer to the way the past has affected the characters at present. To make a global analogy, we can understand the makeup of today's world by exploring its history.

The catalytic event that spurs the story is the death of Jack Dodd (Michael Caine), a butcher leading a modest life in London, a working class stiff with a bunch of working-class, ale-drinking friends who proves to be not just another anonymous face in the crowd once we get to know him. As his best friend Ray (Bob Hoskins), another pal Vic (Tom Courtenay) who doubles as an undertaker, yet another companion Lenny (David Hemmings) and his son Vince (Ray Winstone) gather in the corner ale- house, they prepare to take a drive to Margate to hurl the ashes into the sea. As they talk about Jack, they unfold key experiences in his past and we get to see young Jack in the war (played by a startling young-Michael-Caine-lookalike, JJ Feild). One such turning point involves how Ray saves Jack's life during the war by dragging him back to the trenches just as the bullets were flying. Yet another is a sexual interlude that young Jack has with his wife Amy (Helen Mirren), resulting in the birth of a mentally handicapped daughter, June (Laura Morelli)--who is placed in a home and never accepted by Jack. Yet another involves a liaison that Ray has with Amy as he drives her to the institution to visit June--taking the place of Jack who refuses to visit the poor retarded woman.

This is a small film which at times comes close to out-talking the French cinema (Rohmer and his ilk) and in which the director seems to have the highest respect for the willingness of the audience to bear with him as he takes his time even getting the tale started. Schepisi may intend to get even the males in the audience to pull out their hankies but the fogeys in this drama are not exceptionally likeable and the entire film, which occasionally punctuated by quiet humor, is sadly lacking in wit and an appropriate dollop of plain old melodrama. The National Board of Review conferred its reward on "Last Orders" for Best Ensemble Acting.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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