“Last Orders” occupies the ambiguous space between life and death, following three men as they reminisce about their late friend Jack Dodds (Michael Caine). Unfortunately, the film captures neither state with the thoroughness and passion it deserves.
Nonetheless, writer-director Frank Schepisi is blessed with a talented ensemble of British actors who recall Jack’s life with fiercely vital nostalgia and lament his death with muted yet powerful emotion. Despite the rushed storytelling — perhaps inevitable in an adaptation of Graham Swift’s 300-page novel — the cast of “Last Orders” makes this strangely comedic film watchable, if not quite engaging.
Jack’s aged, hard drinking friends Vic, Lenny and Ray reunite at a favorite dive bar, carrying Jack in a “pint-sized” urn packed in a cardboard box. At the honk of son Vince Dodds’ (Ray Winstone) Mercedes, the friends begin the long journey to the sea, fulfilling Jack’s final wish to have his ashes scattered in the ocean. While traveling the long road they look back on the peaks and valleys of Jack’s ordinary yet captivating life.
Their memories are varied, ranging from pale, quivering recollections of Jack’s final days in a hospital bed to the long past days of their youth, spent on impossibly sunny farms and lively restaurants, or alternately, on darkened war fronts.
Cinematographer Brian Tufano maintains the distinct moods with his choice of lighting and color, giving Jack’s life a lush visual complexity.
Some of the earlier recollections, for example, show an aged but vital Jack, jokingly lusting after young women. Light and life fill these memories, and the contrast with the present is stark. It is clear that Jack’s death killed pieces of his friends and family as well.
Indeed, his wife Amy’s (the reliable, Oscar-nominated Helen Mirren) quiet, fond remembrances depict Jack as a flirtatious, carefree youth, something like Jude Law’s role in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” While he certainly doesn’t have as dramatic an end as that character, Jack’s life has its share of troubles — he feels alienated from his children, particularly his mentally disabled daughter, June. Schepisi’s understated, subtle dialogue keeps such tensions bubbling just under the surface.
Flashing back to Vince’s car, Schepisi injects his film with flashes of limp but somehow appropriate humor. The friends laughingly call Jack’s urn a “Jack-in-the-box,” only minutes before Lenny (David Hemmings) breaks into sobs in a private restroom. These juxtapositions of emotion mirror Jack’s dedication to humor and vitality even in the midst of distress. Indeed, the characters maintain their lightheartedness, or at least their poker faces, while confronting their loss.
As the film progresses, however, the story seems more rushed and haphazardly joined. While masterfully penning dialogue, Schepisi seems less able to maintain a coherent narrative. Flashbacks cut rapidly into each other, returning suddenly and inexplicably to present day. Cheerful memories of youth lead directly to visions of Jack’s deathbed without any continuity between the two scenes. In fact, even the person recollecting the flashbacks changes without warning or reason.
The result is an incomplete understanding of Jack’s life. From the plot, the dialogue and Caine’s inspired performance, it is clear that Jack’s life, ordinary as it may be, is worthy of all the attention it is getting. His life, however, remains in pieces, like an incorrectly assembled puzzle — there is no sense of a whole life, or even of a death. The sense that something is missing overwhelms the film, making it seem incomplete.
The capable performers, however, easily handle the gaps in the plot. Mirren is particularly noteworthy. She balances sadness, anger and fondness in her remembrances. Her character is fragile but nonetheless determined to move forward.
Hemmings, Tom Courtenay as Vic, and Bob Hoskins as Ray have a crackling chemistry from their first joking meeting to the end of their journey, as they grab fistfuls of Jack’s remains and fling them into the wind. Hoskins has a touching series of scenes with Mirren — their characters recall their affair and many of Jack’s lowest moments. In their interaction lies the heart of Jack’s story: his was an ordinary life, with its share of sadness and unfulfilled wishes.
Indeed, as the flashbacks become more sorrowful, the characters no longer hide their true sentiments. Their masks of strength, adopted in the face of death and loss, grow transparent. As they implicitly reveal their own fears and forgotten dreams, “Last Orders” is at the height of its effectiveness. Schepisi directs a stellar cast in subtle performances, overcoming his confused narration and painting a fascinating if incomplete portrait of the late Jack Dodds.