Upon reaching a certain age, especially when a proper catalyst is provided, one may become wont to consider and reflect upon the life one has lived-- to take stock, as it were. And, without question, the death of a long-time, close friend or associate can effect such a catalysis, which is precisely what happens in `Last Orders,' directed by Fred Schepisi, a drama that suggests that perhaps the end of a life can offer a valuable and renewed perspective to those who go on to write yet another chapter of their own in this great book we fondly know as the Human Comedy. Finally, it's about individual resolve and beginnings that can be found in endings, and the life therein reserved for those who may yet count themselves among the living.
Jack (Michael Caine), a working class butcher in London, planned one day to retire with his lovely wife, Amy (Helen Mirren), to the seaside hamlet of Margate. As often happens in life, however, Jack was denied the realization of his dream by the unbidden intervention of Fate, in the form of it's eternal emissary, The Grim Reaper. But Jack enters his everlasting sleep even as he lived his life, one step ahead of the other guy; and the attainment of his final wish begins with the consigning of his ashes to his three closest, life-long friends and his son, Vince (Ray Winstone), along with a request he adjures them as a group to honor. And so it is that Vince, Vic (Tom Courtenay), Lenny (David Hemmings), and Jack's best friend, Ray (Bob Hoskins), set out on a journey to effect the `Last orders' of their good friend, Jack; a journey that will take them into the future by way of the past, as they reflect upon what has gone before, and the possibilities that now lay ahead.
With this film, Schepisi has crafted and delivered what is essentially a moment in time; a moment he examines through a sentimental journey rife with all of the hard knocks and stoic truths that made up Jack's life, and which he presents just as Jack lived it. And a sentimental journey though it may be, don't expect to be seeing it through rose colored glasses. As the story unfolds, what emerges is a portrait of a complex individual made up of the myriad and many facets of the human condition. And each flashback, combined with an episode from the present, reveals another piece of the puzzle that was Jack; and by the end, the picture we have of him is complete. We see him for who and what he really was, good, bad or indifferent, with all the flaws and foibles that were part and parcel of the ebb and flow of his life-- everything that defined him as a human being. Also, inasmuch as the story is told through the eyes of his friends and loved ones, it necessarily follows that they are revealed, as well, especially Amy and Ray. We do get to know Vince, Vic and Lenny, of course, but to something of a lesser degree. In the final analysis, then, what Schepisi has created here is nothing less than an intimate and incisive character study through which Jack, his friends and their story comes vividly to life. Schepisi does the material proud, but then he was, of course, afforded the talents of an extraordinarily gifted ensemble cast, from which he extracts a number of memorable performances.
As Lawrence Jamieson in 1988's `Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,' he was the most suave and sophisticated gentleman (albeit con man) the screen has seen since Niven or Grant, but without question, since his portrayal of `Alfie,' in 1966, Michael Caine has been everyones favorite cockney, and no one-- make that NO one-- does it better. And it's precisely that nuance of character that Caine brings to his portrayal of Jack that makes him so alive and convincing. Caine can be ingratiating even when he's playing a `hard' guy, and there is a decidedly hard side to Jack; but there's a very caring side to Jack, too, which Caine also manages to convey with facility, and he does a splendid job of fusing the many sides of his character into one very real whole. It's the kind of top notch performance we've come to expect from Caine, and it makes his character and the film entirely credible.
When it comes to playing cockney, Caine may be the King, but Bob Hoskins is certainly the Crown Prince, coming in a close second. These two, in fact, would clean up if the Oscars ever decided to include the categories of Best Cockney and Best Supporting Cockney. There are times, perhaps, when you have to turn an ear in to understand what they're saying, but it's part of the charm and viability of their respective portrayals. And Hoskins has an appeal all his own, and though he lacks Caine's charisma, he does have a definite screen presence, all of which helps to make the relationship between Ray and Jack believable.
The wonderful Helen Mirren, meanwhile, turns in a remarkably poignant performance as Amy. Her portrayal readily brings the inner conflicts and complexities of her character to the fore, as Mirren successfully shows us the many sides of this woman, who is wife, lover and mother, all rolled into one. Most importantly, her Amy is so human; there is an earthiness to her, but it is tempered by her more maternal and caring instincts, and it lends an honesty and integrity to the character that makes her very real.
Courtenay, Hemmings and Winstone turn in noteworthy performances, too, each making the utmost of the screen time they are afforded, successfully establishing their characters and the nature of their relationship with Jack as well as one another. It's all a part of what makes `Last Orders' such entertaining and engaging cinema, a film that is both sincere and unforgettable. And that's the magic of the movies. 9/10.