In the wake of Trainspotting, British cinema threw the baby out with the bathwater in the desire to create films for the Cool Britannia brand; the result was the old-school British drama got left behind. Last Orders felt like a missable proposition in 2001, a drab-looking film that failed to connect with audiences or awards juries, despite a cast almost entirely made up of iconic actors. Re-issued some two decades later, Fred Schepisi’s serious-minded drama is a worthwhile revival, an underrated film that never got its time in the spotlight.
It’s a grumpy old men scenario; a group of oldies meet in a London pub after the death of life-and-soul-of-the-party Jack (Michael Caine), a professional butcher. The atmosphere is appropriately sombre, but less so when we flash back to Jack’s heyday, with David Hemmings, Bob Hoskins and Tom Courtenay portraying the close pals who made the local boozer rock. Different shades of grief are displayed by Jack’s widow Amy (Helen Mirren) and his adoptive son Vince (Ray Winstone), but the key proves to be a bet with borrowed money that Jack arranges on his deathbed in an attempt to secure Amy’s future.
The title Last Orders means closing time in British pubs, but the title of Graham Swift’s book also chimes with the last orders Jack provides for his friends, who are sent to Margate Pier with Jack’s ashes to scatter them to the seaside winds. ‘In Margate?’ says Ray (Hoskins) incredulously when Amy talks of starting a new life; wherever they go, the characters are haunted by memories of the past that they can’t overcome. Schepisi has pulled off strong theatrical adaptations with Plenty and Six Degrees of Separation, and largely manages the same trick here, snapping back and forwards in time without too much sentimentality, and getting uniformly good performances from his cast, including Stephen McCole, who makes a strong impression as young Winstone.
Anglophiles will dig the pawky Britishness of Last Orders; it’s always good to hear the phrase ‘knocking shop’ in a film. Perhaps the photography of Trainspotting’s Brian Tufano created the wrong expectations, but Last Orders stands up better now than it did in 2001, and the elegiac sadness of the reflection on alcohol-soaked lives still has a bitter pungency today. Helen Mirren looking sadly at a car dealership from the upstairs of a passing double-decker bus is British cinema in a nutshell, and that formula is seen to some effect here.
Thanks to Vertigo for advance access to this title. Last Orders is re-issued in the UK from May 24th 2021.