Replay – Last Orders – The desolation of quiet desperation
Robert Henderson discovers that more may not be less
Last orders, main cast – Michael Caine as Jack Dodds, Tom Courtenay as Vic Tucker, David Hemmings as Lenny, Bob Hoskins as Ray Johnson, Helen Mirren as Amy Dodds, Ray Winstone as Vince Dodds: Director: Fred Schepisi
Last orders (released 2001) is centred around as starry a cast of British actors as you are likely to find in a film, namely, Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings, Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren and Ray Winstone. Often when a cast has so many heavyweight actors it just does not work either because the actors’ egos clash or the roles they have are too small for them. Not here. Probably because they are all actors brought up in the English repertory tradition they know how to play as a team.
Vic, Lenny, Ray and Vince are on a sentimental journey to scatter the ashes of their old friend Jack Dodds (Michael Caine) in Margate. The film is notable for being a story with solid English working class roots which does not involve crime, something of a rarity in modern British cinema. Jack was an East End butcher, Ray (Bob Hoskins) is a professional gambler and Jack’s best friend since they fought together in the second world war; Lenny (David Hemmings) is a still belligerent former boxer; Vic (Tom Courtenay) a quiet character who is an undertaker and Jack’s adopted son Vince (Ray Winstone), a car dealer whose real family perished in a wartime bombing.
Counterpoised to the four on the trip is Jack’s wife Amy on a journey of her own. For fifty years she has unfailingly visited her mentally retarded daughter June (Laura Morelli) in a home, while her husband could barely acknowledge the daughter’s existence, a fact which has tainted their marriage. The daughter is so severely handicapped she does not even recognise her mother. At the end of the film Amy decides that 50 years of visiting is enough and sees June one last time. The visit means nothing to her daughter but is part relief and part shame at the desertion for Amy.
On the journey to Margate, Vic, Lenny, Ray and Vince stop at various places which were significant in Jack’s life. They reminisce about Jack and the times they had together. This leads to flashbacks to various times in their lives and in the lives of Jack and his wife Amy. We see the characters in their vigorous hopeful youth before the Second World War and their subsequent messy way through their lives, lives full of disappointments and betrayals as well as friendship, love and loyalty. Whether intentionally or not, the depiction of England over the 60 years or so of the film’s span seems to be come greyer as time passes, the shabbiness and existential exhaustion of the four men as they are now mirrored in the England they live in.
As they travel they drink at various pubs old tensions gradually emerge and arguments break out, but these are superficially smoothed over and Jack’s ashes are scattered amongst a painfully forced sentimentality. By the time they have scattered Jack’s ashes Vic, Lenny, Ray and Vince are all diminished. The journey has not been about Jack but themselves. They have tried to fill their lives with significance but either circumstances or their own weaknesses and limitations have prevented it. The trip has shown them what they are. They are left only with a sense of unfocused regret, a sense that not only has their friend Jack gone but something from themselves.
Little needs to be said about the acting other than it is uniformly first rate with Caine producing one of his very best performances and Helen Mirren wonderfully sympathetic as Jack’s wife.
More than a century and a half ago, the American idealist Henry Thoreau said “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” That is as true today as it was when Thoreau said it, although the desperation will have different causes and effects in different times and places. Last Orders is a study in such desperation, of people living lives which are not in their control or even worse potentially within their control but not controlled.
ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s film critic