If we exempt him stepping in to finish Fierce Creatures, Fred Schepisi hasn’t made a movie since 1994’s I.Q., and hasn’t made one nearly as good as Last Orders since 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation. Schepisi’s an uneven filmmaker: For every Six Degrees of Separation, or even a classy spy thriller like The Russia House, there’s a Mr. Baseball or A Cry in the Dark (a.k.a.: A Dingo Ate My Baby). So it’s interesting that he should here be responsible for a movie showcasing virtually a Who’s Who of British actors from the days when the term “British film” actually meant something. Tom Courtenay dates back to his defining role in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner in 1962. Michael Caine became the Michael Caine we know with The Ipcress File in 1965 and Alfie in 1966. David Hemmings made his mark with Blowup in 1966. Helen Mirren first gained notice in Peter Hall’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1968. Bob Hoskins came along a bit later, scoring with The Long Good Friday in 1980. They worked for directors like John Schlesinger, Ken Russell, John Boorman, Neil Jordan and Lindsay Anderson — filmmakers who, with the help of these actors, defined British cinema for years. (Yes, there’s a subtle irony to the fact that the film that now brings them all together should be made by an Australian director.) I bring all this up is because much of the reason that Last Orders works is because of the history these actors bring to the film and the resonance that history affords it. A similar case could be made for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, but the difference is that Last Orders is actually about the passage of time and death, which makes it impossible not to think of these actors we have known since they were young and are now seeing when they’re … well, not so young, just like those of us who remember when they made their breakthroughs. This does indeed give Last Orders a great deal of its special quality, but it by no means is the only reason to see the film. By any reasonable standard of criticism, Schepisi has created a remarkable work of great beauty, warmth and humanity. Structured around a group of friends and family taking the remains of their recently deceased pub-mate to the seaside at Margate to scatter his ashes, the film traces the complex relationships of these people over the course of 50 years of friendship and love. Schepisi’s film effortlessly moves in and out of the past in a way no film has done so successfully since Ken Russell’s Mahler. In this way, Last Orders deftly and movingly presents a series of glorious character sketches that are striking in their complexity and their sense of creating complete characters. None of the characters is given short shrift, and by the end of the film you genuinely feel as if these are real people you’ve known. For a film comprised almost entirely of vignettes — some of which, such as a visit to a war memorial and a romantic tryst in a hops field, are almost heartbreakingly beautiful — Last Orders manages to feel almost completely seamless. Schepisi has never made a better film, and if he never makes one anywhere nearly this good again, this more than justifies the occasional clinker in his filmography. It probably goes without saying that the performances are all first-rate, but special mention should be made of the brilliantly achieved characterization of David Hemmings — one of the finest, most undervalued and underused actors of his generation. For anyone who wants to see a beautifully crafted, intelligent and very human film, Last Orders belongs on their must-see list. A word to the wise: The turn-out for this remarkable film has been anything but overwhelming, so don’t waste a minute getting to Last Orders, because it may not last beyond this week. I don’t think you’ll be sorry you took the trouble.
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