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Hidden Gem DVD #1: Last Orders

August 12, 2012

One of the biggest items in movie-related news this past week, of course, was the announcement by Bob Hoskins that he’s retiring from acting because he’s suffering from Parkinson’s disease. This sad news has led people to reminisce about their favorite Hopkins’ performances and movies/TV shows. Many people cite the original BBC mini-series version of Pennies From Heaven, where Hoskins played sheet music salesman Arthur Packer (Steve Martin played him in the movie version); I’ve only seen snippets of the show, unfortunately (one of many TV shows/mini-series I need to catch up on). Fans of gangster films rightly bring up his terrific work in both John MacKenzie’s hard-as-nails The Long Good Friday and Neil Jordan’s achingly romantic Mona Lisa, and how he balanced the toughness and mercurial nature of both characters with cunning and intelligence in the former and an unlikely tenderness in the latter. And fans of family films and animation fondly recall his send-up of 40’s private eyes in Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. But there’s one film Hoskins did I always try to bring up, because while it got lost in the shuffle when it was initially released, it remains, for me, one of his very best movies. It’s Fred Schepisi’s Last Orders, and while Hoskins isn’t the only reason the movie is so good, he’s the heart of the movie.

Hoskins plays Ray (nicknamed “Lucky”), a (former?) insurance agent who earns most of his money nowadays through betting on horses. He, Lenny (David Hemmings), a former boxer turned grocer, and Vic (Tom Courtenay), an undertaker, have all gathered together at their favorite pub (the Coach & Horses) in memory of their friend Jack (Michael Caine), a butcher. They’re also out to fulfill Jack’s last orders (they all served in the military; “last orders” is also what a barman says in Britain when he’s getting ready to close the bar or pub); to scatter his ashes at the beach of Margate, a source of some of hi’s happiest memories. Also along for the ride is Vince (Ray Winstone), Jack’s son, but notable by her absence is Amy (Helen Mirren), Jack’s widow, for reasons that only become apparent later.

Essentially, this is a road movie, as the four men drive in a car Vince has taken for the occasion (he owns a dealership, and the car is from his showroom). But more than a trip to Margate, it’s a trip through memories for the four men, and even for Amy. Though Jack was an incorrigible flirt with women, he was devoted to Amy ever since they met (in flashbacks, they’re played by J.J. Feild and Kelly Reilly, respectively), and they’ve had a happy marriage for 50 years, except for one thing. Their daughter, June (Laura Morelli), is mentally challenged and has been living in an institution all that time. Though Amy faithfully visits June once a week, hoping for some sign of recognition, Jack has almost never acknowledged her, and when he has, it’s as a millstone around their necks they need to get rid of. Also, while Jack has always loved Vince, he also on some level never quite forgave him for not following in the family business. There’s also tensions between Vince and Lenny (Lenny is always calling him “Big Boy”), since Vince at one point was going out with Lenny’s daughter Sally (John and Tom Baker, and Stephen Cole play Vince at various younger ages; Emma and Laura Deigman, and Claire Harman play Sally at various ages). Ray, for his part has always had feelings for Amy. Only Vic seems completely content with his life (he’s happily married with two sons in the business), but he in turn stumbles onto a couple of secrets about the others.

I haven’t read the Booker Prize-winning Graham Swift novel this is based on in a long time, but I do remember it flashes back and forth quite a bit from the drive to past events, and I also remember much of the novel contains interior monologues of the various major characters. That makes it a challenging novel to adapt, and the temptation would be to use voiceover narration and to forego the flashbacks, or at least not use them so much. Schepisi (who also wrote the script), however, has never been daunted by a fractured narrative, as Six Feet of SeparationThe Russia House, and the made-for-HBO miniseries Empire Falls, among others, have all either contained flashbacks or have played with the narrative to some extent. And rather than use voiceover narration (a valid device if used right), Schepisi prefers dialogue cuts, or cuts from a character sitting (or standing) alone in their thoughts. Also, as with his other movies containing flashbacks, Schepisi has preferred a moving camera and using long takes, not only to allow the emotion of the scene to play out without interruption, but also, it seems, to show how memory works as an ongoing part of our lives, rather than just a still photograph we glance at from time to time (Brian Tufano was the cinematographer; Kate Williams was the editor; she’s gone on to edit all of Schepisi’s work since, including his latest, the upcoming The Eye of the Storm). And all of this works like clockwork here, capturing Swift’s voice and point of view (Schepisi even uses two of the songs Swift quoted in his novel; Jack and his friends in a flashback all sing along to Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou”, while Ray at the beginning of the movie sings to himself the old standard “The Gypsy in my Soul”).

I should go into a little more detail about those flashbacks. In addition to the parallel story of Amy visiting June that same day, there are several sets of flashbacks going on throughout, but not in any sort of order. We see Jack in his last days, and how that effects everyone, especially Amy, Ray and Vince, we see Jack and his friends a little younger than the present day in the film, enjoying themselves but with the undercurrents going on especially between Jack and Vince, we see Jack and Ray, and to a lesser extent Lenny and Vic in their war days and the years immediately following (Anatol Yusef is the younger Ray, Hemmings’ son Nolan is the younger Lenny, and Cameron Fitch plays the younger Vic), and above all, we keep returning to a conversation between Ray and Amy that seemed to be taking place right after Jack died. All of this might seem confusing at first, but I think Schepisi, and Swift, are right to be playing around with the narrative here, rather than doing a straightforward single flashback, because this is all about how the character’s memories and their history – and, though it’s never overly stated, Britain’s history since World War II – effect their lives even up to the present day, and as is almost always the case with memory, it’s fragmented instead of straightforward. Also, with the possible exception of the wig Hoskins wears when Ray is somewhat younger, the details of the characters and the period never call attention to themselves, even though they seem just right (Tim Harvey was the production designer, Paul Gross was the art designer, and Celia Bobak was the set designer), and while the few battle scenes are shot appropriately, Tufano in general has all the 30’s and 40’s scenes brightly lit, while the other flashbacks get slightly darker as the characters’ lives progress, as to illustrate those undercurrents that begin to play out. Finally, Schepisi and Tufano use wide-angle lenses in shooting the film, which allow the characters to all interact with each other better, as well as allowing the details to be in the background without overwhelming the story.

In addition to not calling attention to the flashbacks and the details used to illustrate them, Schepisi also for the first time is working with CGI effects, as he wanted a camera inside the car as Vince was driving them towards their destination (the camera starts out whipping around the outside the car, but as we begin to learn the character’s secrets, that’s when Tufano goes inside). This may sound like the rear projection directors used in the old days, but it actually works seamlessly; I didn’t even know they were CGI effects until listening to Schepisi’s commentary on the DVD. The only bad effect shot in the movie, in fact, isn’t inside the car; it’s a shot of the young Jack and Ray riding a camel, against the backdrop of a sky that seems quite fake (in the commentary, Schepisi owns up to this mistake; they were originally going to shoot in Egypt, but didn’t have the money). That part is, however, a minor quibble. A little more serious is one of the narrative threads that go throughout the movie, involving a particular horse race Jack wants Ray to bet on near the end of his life. Given how faithful Schepisi is to what I remember of the book (and Swift himself was very pleased), this is probably Swift’s conceit, but without giving it away, combining the actual race with another event just seems a little too much like a self-conscious effect, rather than the real, human moment it’s supposed to be (also, one of the ideas about why Jack wants Ray to bet on the race seems a little far-fetched for the story, unless it was better developed in the novel). Other than that part, however, Schepisi is just as non-showy with the story as he is with the visual details. And the proof of that is how this is, in essence, a history of Britain after WWII as well as a character history.

Jack, Ray, Lenny and Vic are all of the generation that fought in WWII, and they’re all of the shopkeeper class. What’s more, they don’t see any harm in their children following in their footsteps, especially Jack. However, as I mentioned before, despite Jack taking Vince around his workplace, and where he went to eat on his lunch break (we even see Jack teasing Vince as a boy about how the ladies like him), Vince didn’t follow Jack’s footsteps, but wanted his own thing, and wanted something better. This caused a rift in them that only seemed to heal as they got older (there’s another source of tension that we don’t find out until much later in the film, which may also have accounted for Vince’s act of rebellion). Also, since the butcher shop isn’t doing so well in later years, Vince tries to talk Jack into becoming a manager at the supermarket, but Jack won’t hear of it. To a lesser extent, Ray also goes through this with his daughter Sue (Patricia Valentine), who moves to Australia with her boyfriend Andy (Simon Oats). Ray is ultimately okay with this, even giving Sue his latest winnings to pay for the airfare, but his wife Carol (Denise Black) isn’t happy about it, which is one of the things that leads to their getting a divorce. Again, Schepisi handles all of this with the right amount of restraint.

Obviously, as skillful Schepisi and his fellow technicians behind the camera are in conveying all of this (Paul Grabowsky, who wrote the terrific score, has, like Williams gone on to work on all of Schepisi’s films since), it wouldn’t matter as much without the actors in front of it. And not just any actors, but these actors. While Caine is a little older than the others, they’re all close in age (Hemmings died in 2003), and all of them except Hoskins became known to audiences in the ’60’s (Hoskins became known in the ’70’s), so they all bring the history we have of watching them in other movies (Caine also brings personal history; he apparently found out when his mother died he had an older brother with epilepsy who had been in an institution all of his life, like June in the movie). And all of them are terrific, and resist the urge towards caricature. Caine doesn’t appear in the movie as much of the others, of course, but he makes an impression, playing a decent man with this one flaw. The years hadn’t been as kind to Hemmings as they were the other actors, but he makes it work; that weathered face and growling voice are effortlessly able to convey all of the resentment his character feels, and he even brings some nice comic moments (as when he and Ray have to stop at one point to take a leak). In the commentary, Schepisi mentioned Courtenay didn’t want to play Vic, he wanted to play Lenny, which is understandable given Lenny is a much more dynamic character. But I’m glad Schepisi talked him into it, as Courtenay is able to play Vic’s even temper (he and Ray, who are of similar temperament, balance out the more volatile Lenny and Vince) and essential decency without pathos, especially in the one moment he gets choked up (when remembering his wartime experiences). And, of course, Winstone shouldn’t be overlooked either, as he combines his usual working-class attitude with the air of someone successful.

But, as I said before, Hoskins, along with Mirren, is the heart of the movie, and he delivers in spades. Though all the actors, except the younger Winstone, as  I said, are contemporaries, only Caine and Hoskins (who did four other movies together, including Mona Lisa) and Hoskins and Mirren (who of course were both in The Long Good Friday) had worked together before, and it’s especially interesting to see them together here in this light. But there’s more to it than that past relationship. Hoskins’ best known movie roles that I listed above all depend on a volcanic temper he can sum up seemingly at will. He has done other movies where that doesn’t come out at all, and been essentially a decent guy (MermaidsShattered) – as well, of course, more shady characters (Nixon, Felicia’s Journey) – but this is his best performance in that type of role. He reins most of his emotions in here, except what he shows us in his eyes, and at times with his voice. Mirren is the same way here, bringing to life what could be a passive character. And neither Hoskins nor Mirren allow their characters to be burdened with bathos, particularly when you see how their relationship plays out.

I have to confess I’m a huge fan of movies where it seems like nothing is happening, and yet everything is happening. Last Orders definitely qualifies as one of those kinds of movies, which is why I love it so much. And while Hoskins in particular went on to do good work after this movie (Mrs. Henderson Presents), I think this movie, and his performance in it, stand with the best of his career.

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