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Character actors rule the screen in 'Orders'

Friday, April 26, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Five old pals are together again in their favorite pub, but they're not too cheerful. Each occupies his own bar stool, but one of them is in a jar. That would be Jack, recently deceased; the jar contains his cremated remains. The task facing the other four is to decide how and where to scatter his ashes.


Rating: R for adult subject matter

STARRING: Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren

Director: Fred Schepisi

Critic's call:


Thespic Anglophiles are in for a treat with "Last Orders," the bittersweet tale of four friends (Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone) mourning the death of a fifth (Michael Caine) -- a cornucopia of British character actors, wonderful to see for the first time on the same screen.

It's a wistful thing, this film -- halfway between a comedy and tragedy -- by Australian director Fred Schepisi ("A Cry in the Dark," "Six Degrees of Separation"), based on a novel by Graham Swift that is funny and touching in equal measure.

Jack is a butcher, but a charismatic one ("There's more to life than bacon!"), whose life has provided a focal point for his less dynamic friends. Chief among them is Ray (Bob Hoskins), the secret horsetrack gambler, who is not-so-secretly in love with Jack's wife, Amy (Helen Mirren). Loudest among them is Lenny (Hemmings), the former boxer who is still and always looking for a fight. Quietest among them is Vic, the undertaker (Courtenay) -- detached to a fault. Youngest among them is car salesman Vince (Winstone), Jack's son.

Or is he?

We'll find out.

We'll also meet June, Jack and Amy's other child -- retarded and institutionalized from birth. Poor June watches cartoons all day and doesn't react to anything or anybody, but that doesn't stop her mother from faithfully visiting every week. In one of the film's finest scenes, Mirren sits on a park bench with June, throwing crumbs to the pigeons -- and tragically longing for just one glimmer of recognition from her daughter.

Ray's daughter is just as remote in a different way: She went to Australia years ago. Would she come back, he wonders, for his funeral?

Jack's pals, meanwhile, carry him from pub to pub (in a "Food Fayre" plastic bag), drinking heavily and flashing back to The War -- WWII -- that defined their relationships as well as their lives.

To some extent, it is all rather lugubrious, full of talk, talk, talk -- and hard-to-understand talk, at that. If you have access to a Henry Higgins-type language lab, you'd do well to make use of it before viewing this film, in order to accustom yourself to the ear-bendingly thick working-class accents.

Our stellar, if long-in-the-tooth, cast is a kind of male equivalent to that of "The Whales of August" -- not quite so geriatric, but equally (and morbidly) fascinating for its latter-day juxtaposition of erstwhile sex symbols. Present-tense sex is provided in beautifully erotic flashbacks by gorgeous J.J. Feild and Kelly Reilly as the young Jack and Amy (with Hemmings' son Nolan playing the young version of his father).

"Last Orders" transports us to a unique time and place and makes it clear that England is a very foreign country, indeed.

"It's about a group of blokes, the kind you see in any pub," says Caine, "sitting in the same chairs every evening, who all know each other very well."

Too well? Or not well enough?

Decide for yourself.

"It's your friends who break your heart -- and who mend it."

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