If the cinema of the British New Wave was typified by several angry young men, it's unlikely it would have been as influential in the 1960s without a few angry young actors. Sometimes referred to as "Free Cinema," the new breed of working-class films that transformed British movies forever was led by such directors as Tony Richardson (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), John Schlesinger (Billy Liar), and Karel Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning). And born of this era was a new kind of movie-star the sort of men who did not master their craft at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and a few seasons at the Old Vic, but very possibly learned a thing or two from a few pub brawls. Tom Courtenay made his earliest impressions in 1962's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. David Hemmings was immortalized as the photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up (1966). And Michael Caine shot to stardom as Cockney secret agent Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1964), soon followed by his turn in the immensely popular Alfie (1966). And thankfully for fans of the era, the three actors co-star in Fred Schepisi's Last Orders (2001), a bittersweet look back at a small group of friends in postwar England. Adapted from the Booker Prize-winning novel by Graham Swift, Last Orders opens with three men Vic (Tom Courtenay), Lenny (David Hemmings), and "Lucky" Ray (Bob Hoskins) who have gathered in their favorite pub with the ashes of their recently deceased friend Jack (Michael Caine). For personal reasons, Jack requested that his ashes be scattered at the English seaside from Margate Pier, and the trio is joined on the day's journey by Jack's son Vince (Ray Winstone). However, Jack's wife Amy (Helen Mirren) is notably absent, choosing instead to spend the day at a care-home with her mentally retarded daughter June. The reason for Amy's decision is not readily apparent, but as the story progresses we learn more about the characters via a complex series of flashbacks including Jack's rejection of his retarded daughter; a long-harbored source of tension between Lenny and Vince; Ray's estrangement from his daughter and grandchildren; a secret loan that Jack tries to pay off from his deathbed; a concealed adoption; and an adulterous affair that has yet to reach a conclusion. During the journey, each character's memories spark the interweaving stories, forcing them to examine their current circumstances before the day is through.
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"There will be days and days and days like this" so says a young Meryl Streep in Fred Schepisi's Plenty (1985), a film that bookends his Last Orders nicely. In Plenty, the words are spoken by a young woman who revels in the bountiful contentment that postwar Europe appears to offer. Such words could be said by the young men seen in Last Orders as well, as the major characters (portrayed by younger actors) swill beer in the local pub with their wives after returning home from the war: Despite their working-class ambitions, they are emboldened by their youth, their families, and their freedoms. But (as also happens in Plenty) the best-laid plans often go awry, and as much as each character tries to maintain some control over their own destiny, destiny also has a way of manipulating them. Jack and Amy's marriage a swift romance discovered on a summer job is strained by his reckless ways and his coldness towards their retarded daughter. Vince's refusal to make a career in his father's butcher shop has only strained the family further. Lenny and Ray harbor secrets about Jack as well that only come to light over time. In fact, despite the fine acting, the most remarkable thing about Last Orders is the complex screenplay by establishing characters and behaviors early on in the story, but only revealing motivations as events unfold via flashbacks, Schepisi's film becomes much richer upon second viewing. Suddenly, small nuances in words and gestures gain a resonance that was not there before, and the actors are smart enough to shield these moments in ambiguity. Schepisi also handles his time-shifts with dexterity, never blatantly announcing what year each scene occupies and instead allowing subtle details to suggest the distinctions. All of the events make for a rather somber story, and while much of the film concerns the debris of experiences that are cast in the wake of lofty ideals, the day dedicated to scattering the ashes of a departed friend ends on an optimistic note.
Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Last Orders features a strong anamorphic transfer (2.351) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Optional English subtitles are available, and recommended for non-British viewers as the actors' Cockney accents can get a bit thick. The chief feature on board is a commentary by director Schepisi, who speaks in soft, even tones about his talented cast, the difficulties of working on a small budget, and how subtle CGI shots are occasionally used in this low-key production. Trailer, keep-case.