Jack in a Box
At the beginning of Last Orders, three old friends gather at a pub in South London to pay homage to one of their own, recently deceased and set on the bar—as ashes in an urn. They toast, they laugh, they remember good times. And then they drive off to fulfill Jack’s “last orders,” that his ashes be scattered at Margate Pier.
The men’s expedition is at once literal and figurative, a day’s worth of driving to the well-known working class vacation spot, and a journey back in time (the present here is 1989). During the trip, they hand off Jack’s urn, chortling, “Jack in a box!” while also trading stories about their mostly shared pasts. As they recall how they came to know Jack (played in flashbacks by Michael Caine and, in his earlier years, by JJ Feild), you come to understand the shifting, fraught friendships between Vic (Tom Courtenay), Lenny (David Hemmings), and Ray (Bob Hoskins), as well as Jack’s son, Vince (Ray Winstone).
Adapted by producer-writer-director Fred Schepisi from Graham Swift’s novel, the film’s nonlinear structure includes flashbacks—sometimes instigated by external events, like their brief stops at the Chatham war memorial (reached by a long walk up a hill that leaves those who are unfit quite winded) and the cathedral at Canterbury—that don’t always attach clearly to a single character.
The men’s memories include happy gatherings at the pub (singing—or more like wailing—Jack’s favorite tune, “Blue Bayou”), as well as more intimate moments, alone or shared by two members of the group. So, you see Ray and Jack’s meeting during WWII, when both were stationed in North Africa; Ray’s impractical inclinations (gambling, buying a camper), that end up ruining his marriage; Lenny’s anger at young Vince for impregnating and then abandoning his daughter; Vince’s decision to sell cars rather than take over Jack’s butcher shop (Jack claims proudly that he refuses to sell the business and be better paid by a supermarket because he must be “my own man”). Though these scenes reveal diverse emotions and even some surprising bits of history (betrayals and secrets kept), they also appear refracted, from multiple points of view and often, layered inside one another.
Adding to this structural complexity, the film simultaneously follows another journey, by Jack’s widow Amy (Helen Mirren, played in her younger incarnation by the arresting Kelly Reilly). Refusing to go to Margate with the fellows, Amy instead enacts the same ritual that she has for 50 years: alone, as always, she boards a bus to go see her institutionalized autistic daughter, June (Laura Morelli). June is unable even to acknowledge Amy, who in turn has struggled for years with Jack, who, in an early flashback, tells Amy they must “forget” their daughter, whom he describes as not having “all her marbles.” Amy remembers wistfully, “It’s easy to believe, when you’re 18, that you can make a ‘fresh start.’” But of course, neither of them can just forget. And so, though Amy knows that “He always loved me,” Jack’s inability to love June irrevocably changes the shape of their marriage.
All this reminiscing might easily turn melodramatic, but for the most part, Last Orders avoids tear-jerking and grand emotional revelations. Instead, it focuses on structural complexities and the layering of perspectives. This structural puzzle makes the movie an ideal project for Schepisi, whose work does tend to be more emotionally reserved and understated than sentimental and obvious. Perhaps the subtlest illustration of affection and strain involves Ray and Amy, as they discuss Jack’s death. Set a week before the drive to Margate, the scene is cut into other flashbacks throughout the film, gradually exposing efforts they made to be loyal to Jack, whom they both loved but also resented, for his single-minded efforts to survive tragedy.
While the movie is certainly about looking back and coming to terms with long-held secrets and thorny life choices, it is also, in the end, about looking forward. As a hospitalized Jack advises his buddy Ray, “If you ever get the option, you go first. It’s the carrying on that’s hard. Ending, it ain’t nothing.” And in this context, and for all the focus on the men’s quarrels and make-ups, it is Amy who has the most to lose and to create for the future. Her relationship to Jack has been most clearly about a box, a shared set of expectations and laments, as well as a set of impositions by her husband, so loving and so unable to love. This explains in part why her journey must be separate from the men’s, and also why, in what is the film’s most conventional move, she must also “find” herself in a second romance.