Friday 28 May 2021

The sense of an ending: "Last Orders"

Fred Schepisi's 2001 adaptation of Graham Swift's Booker Prize-winning novel Last Orders, newly reissued to streaming services ahead of the film's 20th anniversary, got in early with the whole get-the-old-boys-back-together casting thing; a creaking flotilla of humdrum Silver Screen releases trading almost exclusively on their stars' former glories has made that approach seem substantially less special in the years since. (Of the top-billed performers here, Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay and Ray Winstone would be reunited for 2018's King of Thieves, and it's unlikely anyone will think to rerelease that in 2038.) But here they all are, alternately sparking off and relaxing around one another, like the fellow travellers they were offscreen: Courtenay, David Hemmings and Bob Hoskins as old pals Vic, Lenny and Ray, setting off on a daytrip to Margate to scatter the ashes of embattled Bermondsey butcher Jack Dodds, plus Caine in flashbacks as the deceased, a dowdied-down Helen Mirren as Dodds' widow, and Winstone as his spivvish car salesman son, unimprovably named Vince. In the immediate wake of the late Nineties Cool Britannia movement - which was as much as anything a celebration of sometimes faded British screen icons - that combination of names was enough in itself to get bums on seats. What audiences would have found once installed, however, wasn't some gorblimey geezers-and-gangsters-with-shooters romp, rather an altogether modulated, melancholy experience: an attempt to round up and do full justice to the fragments of complex, stymied, rueful proletarian lives.

Its secret weapon was the Australian-born writer-director Fred Schepisi, who - with editor Kate Williams - does a startlingly assured job of translating Swift's intricate flashback structure into narratively and emotionally coherent cinema. Last Orders refuses to travel in a straight line from the East End to the coast, but we always know where we are and who we're with, and - most crucially of all - exactly what these memories mean to the individuals who've been left holding onto them. This is a film that squeezes a lot of experience into its 106 minutes; as befits a movie which often diverts towards the racetrack (where the Hoskins character indulges his primary vice), those flashbacks are a series of bets the film places, and some of them only start to pay off late on, in retrospect. The rejuvenating wigwork these scenes entail looks a little unsubtle in 2021 - had the film been made now, Schepisi might have availed himself of the deaging technology Martin Scorsese trialled in the course of The Irishman. But the cinematographer Brian Tufano (who shot Danny Boyle's dynamic early features) finds in these interactions enduring glimmers of beauty. It obviously helped that casting mavens Patsy Pollock and Shaheen Baig found JJ Feild and Kelly Reilly, as handsome a pair as the class of 2001 offered up, to embody the young Caine and Mirren, but Tufano, Schepisi and the actors also do something gently wonderful and reaffirming with Hoskins and Mirren's midlife affair, largely conducted in the back of a camper van that represents the height of Ray's ambitions. The fresh-faced promise of one coupling only heightens the wisened regret in which the other is couched.

Schepisi's direction only enhances the idea of Englishness captured by Swift's prose: this camera sees all too well where and how an inherited sense of duty and station, the reservation hotwired DNA-deep, holds these people back. It's a film that absolutely knows its place in one sense, the present-day scenes unflashily outlining the muddy hills, windswept promenades and terminally grey skies of the South Coast. (I'm guessing the actors didn't have to do too much fake-shivering in the concluding Margate scenes, and hoping the crew had blankets on standby for the oldest among them.) But it's also acutely alert to the limitations of knowing and resigning yourself to your social place; it took an outsider to remind us of that. The result is the kind of period movie about working-class lives that, with the noble exception of films by Ken Loach, Terence Davies and Andrea Arnold, would disappear from British screens as the decade wore on and the country took a renewed turn for the Tory. Even if these characters pooled their gambling wins, they wouldn't be able to afford a week's stay at Downton. All they have left is the past: these 20th century men spend the journey harking back, because they can barely seem to conceive of any future for themselves. There would be much more of that in the 21st century, although Last Orders makes the crucial distinction that this was a generation who actually fought a war - indeed, who had to go to war to see the world - rather than those pretenders who've spent the decades since wishing they had a war to fight. (Poignant, in 2021, to revisit the coastal towns that led the retreat from Europe in 2016, and which have suffered for it ever since.) Either way, from the mournful oboe of Paul Grabowsky's fine score on down, this now feels a profoundly valedictory work: Hemmings left us in 2003, Hoskins in 2014, exec-producer Nik Powell in 2019. "Where's the luck, eh?," Hoskins' characteristically thoughtful creation ponders. "It's all about luck." It is, Bob; it is.

Last Orders is now available to rent via Prime Video.

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