Time, Gentlemen, Time: Philip Kerr Raises a Toast to a Superb Adaptation of Graham Swift's Booker Prize-Winning Novel. (Film)
Kerr, Philip, New Statesman (1996)
It was with a sense of real trepidation that I sat down to watch Fred Schepisi's film of Graham Swift's Booker Prize-winning novel, Last Orders. After all, several recent film versions of books had hardly been distinguished by their excellence. What if this one turned out to be a dud -- as did, for example, Working Title's laughable adaptation of Louis de Bernieres's Captain Corelli's Mandolin? And wasn't Fred Schepisi the same Australian who directed the lamentable I.Q. (1994), not to mention the mawkishly sentimental Roxanne (1987)?
I needn't have worried, because this is arguably Schepisi's best film-ever. At the very least, it is his most satisfying film since The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978). Last Orders may have been made for next to nothing, but it is distinguished by an excellent script written by Schepisi himself, some brilliant editing by Kate Williams, and several outstanding performances from a cast that represents the very best of British screen acting.
Ray (Bob Hoskins), Lenny (David Hemmings) and Vic (Tom Courtenay) meet up in a sarf London pub, the Coach and Horses, both to raise a pint to the memory of their old mate Jack (Michael Caine), a life-and-soul type who has died of cancer, and to embark upon a pilgrimage of sorts: a journey -- by way of Canterbury -- to Margate, where they will carry out butcher Jack's last order by depositing his ashes in the sea. Jack's wife, Amy (Helen Mirren), declines to accompany them on their journey, preferring to visit her grown-up daughter in the mental institution where she has been confined since birth. Hers is a pilgrimage of its own, as it happens, because Amy has also gone to say goodbye to her daughter.
Meanwhile, Jack's mates -- a bookmaker, an undertaker and an ex-boxer -- are driven down to Margate in some style by Jack's car dealer son, Vince (Ray Winstone). Along the way, they sink a few pints and reminisce, noisily, about Jack, while each man nurses thoughts of his own life's disappointments and, ultimately, his individual human frailty.
If all this sounds rather morbid and depressing, it isn't. The characters are much too well drawn to be anything other than compelling; and there is a great deal of blokish humour among these four cockney pilgrims, which serves to relieve several moments of genuine pathos; moreover, the film is edited in a way that stops this simple enough tale from ever running out of steam. …