They Were Soldiers, Too

A second helping of great British ensemble acting has opened in Texas theaters: Last Orders. Unlike widely released Gosford Park, however, Last Orders is playing on a limited number of screens. That’s too bad, because the current film is not only beautifully realized and performed, its concerns–death, love, and friendship–are about as universal as themes can get.

Maybe it’s the immediacy of the death issue that makes the distributors of Last Orders wary. (It certainly can’t be the cast: Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, and Helen Mirren, for starters.) Jack Dodds (Caine), a London East Ender and second-generation (at least) butcher, has just died, thus breaking up a friendship circle that began in World War II. Jack has made what his mates consider a rather odd but nevertheless sacred final request–to have his ashes scattered over the waves at the resort town of Margate.

The film opens with the three remaining friends meeting at their clubhouse–the Coach and Horses public house. It’s the middle of the afternoon, so they’re joined only by one anonymous, lonely quaffer, the bartender, and Jack’s ashes, which are set down gingerly atop the bar, and then gawked at by the friends. There’s Vic (Tom Courtenay), the undertaker and the dry wit of the group, and pugnacious Lenny (David Hemmings), a greengrocer who once dreamed of being middle-weight champ. But Ray (Hoskins) is the man who shared the most history with Jack (he shared more than history, as the story reveals). He and Jack first met on the Egyptian front during the war, and together survived trench warfare and Cairo brothels.

“So that’s Jack, is it?” asks the bartender, looking at the disconcertingly small box. The real, if rhetorical, question, is “Is this all that we amount to in the end?” which is perhaps too blunt a message for the gatekeepers who decide which films go into wide release. But the men’s–and the film’s–attitude toward Jack’s ashes is in fact quite bracing.

Jack was, and is, more than his ashes, as their memories of him, presented in elegant, nicely interwoven flashbacks, make clear. What’s more, the men don’t feel too awfully bad for Jack, as much as they loved him. Or for themselves, for that matter. Yes, they grieve, and one by one, as the film progresses, they sneak off to the loo and give in to sobs and tears, but they balance their pain with their memories, and with the camaraderie they still can offer each other. They actually spend most of the drive to Margate either cracking wise, or saying that Jack would certainly expect them to stop at the next pub and have a pint for him.

The film’s emotional temperature spikes when the three are joined by Jack’s son Vince (Ray Winstone), a.k.a. Big Boy. Vince broke his father’s heart by ignoring the “and son” part of the sign on the butcher shop door, and going into car sales instead. Vince and Jack had remained close; the boy sometimes joined the old timers at the Coach and Horses, but Jack had never gotten over his disappointment at his son’s refusal to take up the family trade.

So Vince’s relationship with the box of ashes that he’s going to transport in a Mercedes he’s borrowed from the dealership is more complicated than that of the dead man’s friends. Unlike those friends, he stands to gain from seeing the ashes disappear. He’ll never be reproached by his father again.

When the four men set off for Margate, one person is conspicuous in her absence: Amy (Helen Mirren), Jack’s wife. She has her reasons for not coming, but are they good enough? When her and Jack’s first child was born (something less than nine months after their marriage) deeply retarded, Jack wanted nothing to do with the child. In one flashback we see the young Jack (an appropriately golden looking J.J. Feild) saying that they should “forget all about her” and move on. He did, but she didn’t. Every Thursday for the previous 50 years, Amy’s made a pilgrimage of her own, to visit the daughter who never recognizes her, never responds to her.

The day of Jack’s ash-scattering falls on a Thursday, and Amy isn’t willing to give up her visit with June to join the men. She has other reasons for not wanting to go. Margate holds bitter memories for her. It’s where Jack spelled out his refusal to accept his daughter. She remembers him tossing the teddy bear that he’d won at an arcade, a present that could’ve gone to his daughter, off the same pier where his friends would soon be dumping his ashes.

As the men proceed toward Margate, and Amy sits with her daughter, the film flows smoothly between past and present. The men joke about Jack, or berate Big Boy for not being a better son, or decide to make unscheduled detours, so that Jack can get a last look at a memorial to England’s war dead, or a first look at Canterbury Cathedral. They also tell stories about Jack that are inevitably stories about themselves, and stories about the passing of time, and the changing of England. Among other things, Last Orders is a quiet elegy for the England these four Cockneys represent. The England of shopkeepers, as Napoleon once famously sneered.

Last Orders was adapted from Graham Swift’s 1989 Booker-Prize-winning novel by Australian director Fred Schepisi, who also directed. Schepisi doesn’t find his rhythm right away. For 20 or 30 minutes, the cutting between past and present bogs the story down, and the film feels too indebted to the fragmented storytelling of the book. But after we get to know the characters well enough so that the two different time frames rub against each other, giving off sparks, the film begins to deepen at a measured and very satisfactory pace. Near the film’s end, around the time the mates reach the war memorial, Schepisi and his actors are sounding very deep notes indeed. The sight of Lenny and Ray, beer bellies swaying before them, lumbering painfully uphill toward the memorial, is both comic and deeply moving.

It’s the touch of comedy–never enough to actually provoke a laugh–that sets the film into such perfect balance. And balance is in fact the key to Last Orders’ success. The situation could easily lend itself to sentimentality, and there are moments of intense emotion, as when the men slip away individually to cry, or when Lenny wants to punch out Big Boy for being a traitorous son. Not to mention the scenes in which Amy pleads for a single look of recognition from her daughter.

But after the momentary letting go of restraint, everyone always reverts to character. The men always remind themselves that getting Jack well disposed of is the real business of the day, and they soldier on, just as they had 50 years before.

The attitudes are particularly British. The film is respectful of the dead and sober about our obligations. It’s neither oblivious to emotion, nor easily overwhelmed. This is a film about grownups, in other words. Men and women who have fully flowered as human beings and as personalities–including the relatively youthful Big Boy, who doesn’t let his father’s disapproval, or his honorary uncles’ disapproval, prevent him from doing his simple duty with a clear mind, if perhaps a divided heart.

Last Orders is similarly clear-minded about its characters. It neither puts them on pedestals, nor demands too much of them. Each character’s limitations are put on clear enough display. One character, in fact, could be seen as a more egregious betrayer of Jack than Big Boy ever was. But it’s also clear that this same man was Jack’s best friend of all. And the film doesn’t have much trouble balancing the two.

Jack himself, for that matter, takes a nearly inhuman attitude toward his daughter, and thereby badly hurts his wife. But he also goes to his grave–or kiln–thinking only of Amy’s well-being (and seeing to it in a genuinely charming fashion).

Schepisi must get credit for the film’s combination of strength and gentleness, but it’s his wonderful crew of actors who provide the flesh and bone. They’re actors here, not movie stars, and you’ll never doubt that they’ve been drinking buddies, and more, for going on half a century. (Here’s a weakness, though. Some of the actors, Caine included, don’t look old enough).

Caine is splendid as Jack, from the way he lets his face go puffy sometime around the fifth pint, to the gleam in his eye as he approaches death. Hoskins has never played a part quite like Lenny. He’s the shy, sensitive one of the lot, but he’s also the one bold enough to make his living betting on the ponies. Hoskins’ habitual and sometimes volcanic strength is still here, but more tempered than I’ve ever seen it. Mirren plays the most reserved and philosophical of the characters. Ray Winstone is particularly strong as the wronged but clear-eyed son, never crumbling under the emotional millstone he must be carrying.

Finally, the soundtrack, by Paul Grabowsky, is pitch perfect. Its jazzy flourishes perfectly reflect the film’s depth of feeling and strength of mind. When the friends finally make it to Margate pier and murmur “Goodbye, Jack,” with every handful of ash that they toss, the music rises in perfect and deeply moving accompaniment.

David Theis’s novel, Rio Ganges, has just been published.

David Theis is a long-time Houston writer and a longer-time devotee of Mexican food.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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