- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 16, 2002

"Last Orders" begins with the image of a large wall map of Australia. In flashback, the plot pays fleeting visits to a war zone in Egypt during World War II. The story proper, however, begins in a London pub where a quartet of mourners meets in preparation for a long day's drive to Margate, where they will scatter the ashes of a recently deceased friend to wind and sea, in accord with his dying wishes.
The remains belong to a character named Jack, destined to be resurrected repeatedly in flashbacks by Michael Caine. To be precise, only three members of the Margate expedition are pals: Bob Hoskins as a genial horseplayer named Ray, David Hemmings as a short-fused ex-prizefighter named Lenny and Tom Courtenay as a serene mortician named Vic. The fourth participant is Jack's son Vince, a car dealer. Later we discover that some bitterness ensued when Vince declined to inherit Jack's butcher shop.
The trip is leisurely enough to accommodate several stopovers at pubs, plus scenic interludes at Canterbury Cathedral and the Chatham War Memorial, all of which trigger recollections from one character or another. The source material, a novel by Graham Swift, shifted points of view with each chapter. Director-screenwriter Fred Schepisi's scenario tends to remain unwieldy while clearly shortchanging a couple of cronies, Lenny and Vic.
Moreover, the quality of revelation that emerges from the busier memory files that deal with Jack, Ray and Vince don't necessarily keep human interest and suspense percolating. There are moments when you begin to suspect that Margate will remain an elusive destination. It wouldn't be surprising if the party ended up sleeping off hangovers in, say, the Canterbury choir loft.
Meanwhile, another principal character, Helen Mirren as Jack's widow Amy, has a separate pilgrimage to complete. Staleness haunts the secret heartaches, deceptions or blessings that we're eventually privy to, whether accompanying Miss Mirren or the blokes. An unfortunate child. Infidelity. Estrangement. A timely act of generosity. The most effective novelty is probably the casting substitutions that occur when younger actors impersonate the principal characters. (Mr. Hemmings is doubled by his own son, Nolan, and that cheerful little detail remains the most interesting aspect of Lenny's personality.)
The ensemble definitely stirs more interest than the material. Perhaps the spectacle of top-flight actors making a sincere effort, getting wholeheartedly into scenes, especially boisterous ones, will suffice for the absence of scenes that accumulate in adequately distinctive and revealing ways. Ultimately, the movie seems to be haunted by that map of Australia. You wonder if Mr. Schepisi suspects it's time to go home again, where material as memorable as "The Devil's Playground," "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith" and "A Cry in the Dark" could be beckoning.
As, in fact, it could be, since Mr. Schepisi may direct a movie version of Peter Carey's novel "Jack Maggs," which takes the liberty of imagining what happens to the convict Magwitch after he disappears from the early chapters of "Great Expectations." Lingering in England for "Last Orders" doesn't seem to be much of a life-enhancer. Maybe it's the ideal movie to see if you need some extra incentive for a repeat trip to "Monsoon Wedding," where the life force is overwhelmingly evident.

**
TITLE: "Last Orders"
RATING: R (Frequent profanity and sexual candor; fleeting graphic violence)
CREDITS: Directed by Fred Schepisi. Screenplay by Mr. Schepisi, based on the novel by Graham Swift.
RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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