Saturday, April 5, 2014

Last Orders

I'm still hard at work on my new spectacular theatrical piece, Aida on Ice in which I'm to play the title role. My collaborators, however, are not being terribly professional at the moment. First, there's my skating coach, Miss Tonya Harding. I acquiesce to her demands for the weekend off and she immediately goes and gets involved in a DUI accident. I knew that Perrier she was always nipping at had to have a bit of a kick to it; especially late in the day when she would land on her butt coming out of a double axel and claim it was simply a three point landing. I'm going to have to replace her with someone more reliable like Lynn-Holly Johnson. Second, Siegfried and Roy have bowed out of supplying the animals. Joseph has instead engaged Priscilla's Performing Pets who sent over a rather anemic looking elephant this afternoon.

The elephant seemed absolutely terrified of the ice skates we've had specially constructed for her and kept trumpeting all during her first introduction to the rink at Rosita's Ice-A-Rama. She also kept voiding all over the ice, melting holes and creating an awful stench. The owners, of course, came flying out of whatever rat hole they usually occupy and jabbering in some bizarre Guatemalan dialect and creating a hideous fuss. The mamcita eventually trod in a pile of dung, slipped and cracked her head on a stray hockey puck and that shut them up for a while. It was obvious that no meaningful work was going to get done before midget hockey had the rink at three so I left and headed to the Cineplex for a film, leaving the production staff to sort things out.

My choice today was Fred Schepisi's new film, Last Orders, which opened on the art house circuit with little fanfare this past month. Schepisi is the Australian writer director who came to prominence in the late 70s with the films The Devil's Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith . He eventually came to Hollywood where he helped create such unusual fare as Roxanne A Cry In the Dark and Six Degrees of Separation . For this film, he adapted Graham Swift's complex Booker prize winning British novel of the same title as a meditation on the nature of love, life and death.

Last Orders (the title is a pun implying both the British version of 'Last Call' and 'Final Request') is the story of an aging group of friends in the working class suburbs of London. The four are Jack (Michael Caine), a butcher, his best friend and old army buddy Ray (Bob Hoskins), Lenny, an ex-pugilist and barrow greengrocer (David Hemmings) and Vic, the local undertaker (Tom Courtenay). These four have grown up and old together, through fifty plus years of post-war Britain, gathering together at the local pub to share their loves and lives. As the film opens, Jack has died. His last request was that his ashes be taken and scattered from the end of Margate pier at the seaside. His three remaining friends and his son, Vince (Ray Winstone), gather together and set off on this melancholy task. Through their interactions and interconnected flashbacks, we learn the story of Jack, his wife Amy (Helen Mirren), her devotion to a daughter with severe learning disabilities whom Jack could never accept, and their family ties. The older men reflect on their mortality, the nature of life, and how they, as a community of friends, have become interdependent on each other over the years. Their trip to the seaside is interrupted by side excursions to the Chatham war memorial, Canterbury cathedral, and the farm where Jack and Amy first met.

The novel is constructed in interlocking flashbacks with no fewer than seven narrators and it's amazing that Schepisi has been able to adapt it into as cogent and coherent a script as he has. Despite the time travelling and the substitution of different actors for younger selves (the stars play their middle aged selves in a succession of shockingly bad hairpieces), the action and the themes never become unclear. The younger actors are, for the most part, a good physical match (although J.J. Feild, who plays the young Jack, is impossibly better looking than the young Michael Caine ever was)and carry their parts in such a way that the intercutting never seems too jarring. Schepisi knows the points he is trying to make about late life and its reflection on mortality and what life has meant and he handles this material exquisitely, helped by his brilliant cast.

In the central roles are a superb group of veteran British actors. Many of them (Caine, Courtenay, and Hemmings in particular) have been iconic in British film for nearly forty years and just seeing their faces, weather-beaten and careworn, bring forward memories of time and society past and present. These old pros also waste no time in creating absolutely convincing characters, each with magical screen moments. Helen Mirren, as Jack's troubled, lonely wife, does not go on the journey but has one of her own to make and her own good-byes to say and hits amazing emotional notes as well. Her final confrontation with her daughter is heart wrenching and uplifting at the same time.

I have little bad to say about this film. It was obviously made on a shoestring budget (but the lack of production values don't hurt it an iota - the only problems are a couple of glaring continuity errors, especially one involving boats and the tide). Any quibbles like this are more than overbalanced by the loving care that went into the writing, directing and performance. This is a piece that Hollywood would never touch - it's about age and living, rather than their usual formula of forever young and dying beautiful, but this is much more the common experience of life and there's much to be learned from it.

Utilitarian urn. 33 to 1 long shots. Institutional living. Egyptian trench battles. Camper vans. Meat van vomiting.

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