Last Orders

A pile up on the road from Bermondsey to Margate
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The Independent Culture

The French New Wave directors had a term for the kind of film they were reacting against – le cinéma de papa or, if you like, yer dad's movies. Last Orders, adapted by Australian director Fred Schepisi from Graham Swift's 1996 Booker-winning novel, is the epitome of cinéma de papa, British style: most of the characters could be your dad, even your grandad. Actually, that feels like a revolutionary gesture these days: I only wish Last Orders felt as youthfully cranky as its ageing characters act. Schepisi's film is evidently a labour of love, a chance for a serious-minded director to throw off the expensive trimmings and have fun with a seasoned, playful cast in boldly prosaic settings – the stretch of motorway from Bermondsey to Margate, and that really is prosaic. At moments, the film is convincingly poignant, ebullient, game for a challenge. But mostly it feels literal-minded and a little arthritic.

The story couldn't be simpler. Bermondsey butcher Jack (Michael Caine) dies and leaves instructions for his ashes to be sprinkled off Margate Pier, so his mates do the honours. Undertaker Vic (Tom Courtenay), spitfire bruiser Lenny (David Hemmings) and Ray (Bob Hoskins), a wiz with racing tips, set off with Jack's car salesman son (Ray Winstone) at the wheel. Widow Amy (Helen Mirren) declines to join them. That's about all there is to it, but Swift's novel is a complex, fragmented piece that lets you find your way into his characters' minds and histories through a gradual accretion of telling glimpses. And Schepisi bravely takes on the novel's layered intricacy, instead of ironing it into easily digestible shape. Somehow, though, you don't notice the jigsaw structure, and the film flows as if it were linear. That might be a tribute to Schepisi's narrative skill, but I suspect it's more a symptom of the film's inertia.

Last Orders protests its ordinariness too much. Just as Schepisi, a seasoned Hollywood hand, visibly rolls up his sleeves and gets back to the kitchen sink, the actors are too obviously doing the same. There's something paradoxical in the sight of Caine and Hoskins – who built their unique glamour on being everyday blokes in extraordinary screen situations – playing ordinary again with such perverse relish. The problem with Caine's saucy high street butcher is that you can't help thinking of Phil Cornwell's impersonation in Stella Street : try saying, "'Ere, fancy some best brisket, missus?" and you'll see what I mean. Early on, Caine's character shows off in the saloon bar, jokily trying it on with the girls while his mates half-blush, half-snigger into their pints. A knowing self-parody of the old Alfie image, the effect is not of lovely old reprobates together; it's actually a bit seedy, and doesn't do the characters any favours.

But you don't quite feel these people are old mates, or from the same world. Hemmings is a cantankerous, snorting bull of a man, antenna eyebrows a-twitch, spitting out taunts in a big savoury rasp; he's the most convincing embodiment of life force on board. Courtenay is fragile, tactful but obliged to take a back seat; Hoskins gruffly vulnerable without showing us much new. And given that a Flash Harry in a camel coat looks like lazy casting for him, Ray Winstone gives his part something extra, an understated low-talking tenderness that contrasts nicely with the sometimes forced ebullience around him.

One performance the film contrives to damage is Mirren's. Relishing drabness to the point of making it picturesque, Schepisi makes her Amy both look and feel like the oldest character Mirren has ever played. There's a tough, subtle register of weary endurance here, but Schepisi dresses it up as near-caricature, giving Mirren a dowdy hat straight from sitcom supplies, a cartoon of the careworn. The embodiment of suffering sanity, her Amy is landed with too much talk. There's one line when she talks about her mentally handicapped adult daughter – "Not once in 50 years did she give me a sign" – that feels too on-the-nose even for an interior monologue on paper. But on screen, it pushes the role into terse martyrdom, almost Dot Cotton territory. However good Mirren is, the part leaves little room for manoeuvre.

Occasionally, the film gets restless and erupts into big-scale evocations of the past. The best of these, a flashback to hop-picking in Kent, is a vivid idyll of romantic, flirty, itchy sex; JJ Feild, looking less like the young Caine than Jude Law in a Caine biopic, and Kelly Reilly, playing Mirren's character as a girl, steal the show and make the film crackle for a while.

But with most of the flashbacks – wartime action on land and sea, an Egyptian brothel, Smithfield market as was – you wonder what the point is. Swift's novel evokes all this and more, a matter of writerly ingenuity backed with period research. Schepisi does it with set design, costumes and period haircuts for a screenful of extras. It's all too solid to evoke the workings of memory, and solid turns easily to kitsch: a discarded teddy bear bobbing in shimmering sea is an end-of-the-pier caricature of epiphany. I'd rather imagine what Chatham War Memorial looks like from what Swift's characters say about it; put it on screen, and it looks just like Chatham War Memorial.