The Greatest Generation
Last Orders, based on the Graham Swift novel of the same name, is a sentimental film that traces the friendships of four elderly Londoners. The title refers both to the final call for drinks at the end of the night (the men have been meeting at the same local pub for years) and the dying wish of Jack (Michael Caine), to scatter his ashes at Margate Pier. This slightly trite double meaning makes clear the centrality of the pub in the lives and deaths of Jack, Vic (Tom Courtenay), Lenny (David Hemmings), and Ray (Bob Hoskins).
The film reflects the typical significance of the pub in British social life as a place for celebration and mourning. When they were younger, the men brought their wives and children to meet in the pub. In their old age, it is an escape from now disgruntled wives or the loneliness of old age.
The story is told through flashbacks, with younger actors playing the characters’ younger selves, but throughout, the pub stays exactly the same. While clothes change and hairstyles come and go, the importance of a good pint and great friends does not. Like the ashes they scatter at their destination, these flashbacks are dispersed throughout the film in a way that at first seems random, inspired by bits of conversations among the four men making the trip to Margate—the three surviving friends and Jack’s son Vince (Ray Winstone). The dynamics of the relationships are revealed slowly, from multiple perspectives, so that you get to know the characters and their motivations. The flashbacks successfully reproduce the novel’s fluid narrative, moving in and out of different points of view. This play of perspectives and time periods makes watching this movie a bit like a visit with grandparents, when they pull out all the old photos, letters, and newspaper clippings collected over many years. This effect is accentuated by the fact that the main actors in the film have such familiar faces. Having seen these actors, particularly Michael Caine, age on screen over long careers adds another level of intimacy to Last Orders.
In many ways, the film examines the collective memories of what is called the “Greatest Generation” in the U.S., and so the history it tells is familiar too. While the flashbacks tell the rich, full, and complicated knot of experience that links the four friends and their families, quasi-documentary footage accentuates the personal narratives. Shots of bombs whizzing over London during the Blitz or explosions in the trenches look like stock footage and do not add much to the story, but do serve as reminders of how messy, dangerous, and close to home World War II was for the British. Last Orders shares the proud patriotism of many of those in the generation at its center and holds up these men, despite their obvious personal and emotional shortcomings, as everyday heroes, of a sort.
The working class hero motif in Last Orders is a welcome break from the recent rash of British gangster films that also focus on eccentric characters in downtrodden London neighborhoods. Films such as Snatch and Sexy Beast seem to have taken the place of the Merchant Ivory period piece as the British import of choice in U.S. theaters. Ray Winstone, who has become well known for playing the criminal in this type of film, does give Last Orders an infusion of Cool Britannia edginess in his portrayal of Jack’s successful and shady car dealer son. The plot of Last Orders is also similar to these films, since it features a quirky ensemble cast and follows the adventures of a tough group of South Londoners carrying precious cargo.
While Last Orders may look like Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels for the geriatric set, it is also very different in its approach to its working class characters. Class status is implied in every aspect of the characters’ speech and dress, and even in Jack’s choice of final resting place: Margate Pier, a popular vacation spot for Londoners unable to afford a more exotic vacation spot. Unlike Guy Ritchie, who too often uses cynical distance to poke fun at the mannerisms, accents, and pleasures of the working class, writer-producer-director Fred Schepisi evokes empathy for his characters. Instead of being represented as uncultured clowns, they form a multidimensional portrait of the hardships of being working class in England and the national and international influences that affect everyday life. In Jack’s case, for instance, emotional struggles with his son, wife Amy (Helen Mirren), and autistic daughter June (Laura Morelli), are exacerbated by the fact that his butcher’s shop, built by his own father, is unable to weather the influx of the supermarket and the changing buying habits of the new generation.
Last Orders catalogues the major historical changes in 20th century Britain: war, the relative prosperity and hope of the post-war years in Europe, and then the declining promise by the dream of the welfare state. The film seems at times like propaganda, as when the group tearfully visits a war memorial, complete with flashbacks of mortuary owner Vic’s first experiences on a Navy war ship. Yet, in its move to glorify the steadfastness of the British working classes, Last Orders does not ignore some of the thornier aspects of British history, including the legacy of colonialism. Vic and Ray meet while at the front in North Africa, and are shown visiting a whorehouse there, ogling the exotic beauty of the women and getting their pictures taken astride a camel while on leave from the front. What is interesting about these scenes is not that they examine the dynamics of Britain’s involvement in the Middle East, but that they uncover what is often an ignored part of World War II. This has particular resonance now that the complicated history of Western (U.S. and European) involvement in this part of the world is being publicly examined.
While Last Orders is a film about memory, it also explores how the past and present intersect and clash in the struggles between parents and children. The film includes some social trends among the equivalent of the Baby Boomers in England, such as Jack’s disappointment at Vince’s unwillingness to carry on the family business, and Ray’s heartbreak when his daughter emigrates to Australia. What is ultimately moving about the film is that, instead of reveling in the pain of these relationships, it focuses on the small moments of understanding. Sappy maybe, but satisfying nonetheless.