From the evidence on the screen, I imagine Fred Schepisi as a filmmaker whose sensibility was formed in a very particular period of cinema. As a young man in the mid '60s, Schepisi might well have admired the British New Wave movies of Joseph Losey, John Schlesinger and Lindsay Anderson.
Taking their cue from the earlier and more radical French Nouvelle Vague, these directors developed jazzy ways of telling essentially the same old stories. Moments of free-associative editing, raw acting performance and an overt use of music declared the hand of the filmmaker – no longer the invisible presence favoured by Old Hollywood.
In 1973, Schepisi contributed the episode The Priest to the Australian anthology film Libido. The other episodes have dated badly and the film as whole is long forgotten (although now available on DVD), but Schepisi's section is still impressive. In it, he pulled out every dazzling '60s trick to enliven a simple soap opera of religious faith and temptation.
At the time, in the context of a virtually non-existent national cinema, this must have seemed like a bold experiment (even though the rest of the world had already moved on to other styles). It is depressing, however, to see Schepisi still using the same, tired, mid '60s tricks all these years later in Last Orders.
Schepisi is a chameleon who blends well into other cultures. His adaptation of David Hare's Plenty (1985), for example, was hailed as "authentically British" in its vision. With Last Orders he is back in Britain and again adapting a weighty literary source, this time a novel by Graham Swift. Like Stephen Gyllenhaal's film of Waterland (1992), all the usual Swiftian themes are there: emotional repression and compromise, the weight of the past, the unfinished business of loves, friendships and family ties.
The premise is a familiar one. Four men gather to have a ritual drink and take a journey to scatter the ashes of a friend, Jack (Michael Caine). As memories are triggered for each character, the complications of the past emerge, such as the affection between Ray (Bob Hoskins) and Jack's wife, Amy (Helen Mirren), the resentments held by Jack's adoptive son, Vince (Ray Winstone), and the ex-relationship between Vince and the daughter of Lenny (David Hemmings).
Schepisi narrates the story via an intricate back-and-forth chronology, plunging directly into flashbacks without voice-over narration or overt cues. In this respect, it's like Losey's Accident (1966) or The Go-Between (1970), but without the energy. Last Orders is a leisurely, old man's film, structured no doubt to reflect the personality of its characters.
There are some moving scenes in the film, and a pervasive mood of melancholy. The subplot involving the mentally disabled child of Jack and Amy cuts deepest. The actors are all excellent, especially Mirren. Yet, even for a long film, the structure is too ambitious to contain all the stories (Tom Courtenay's character tends to register as a footnote). And I found Paul Grabowsky's musical score too obtrusively tuneful.
The real dissatisfaction prompted by Last Orders relates to what is missing from it. In a searing review in the sometimes politically correct film pages of the World Socialist Web Site, David Walsh leads the charge: "I cannot recall another British film, ostensibly surveying the entire post-war period, which makes so little reference to institutions, parties, class realities. The Labour Party, Thatcherism, the trade unions, the welfare state, the end of the British empire – none receive a single reference, and there is no sign whatsoever of their socio-psychological impact."
Last Orders is indeed an oddly in-grown film. It agonises over intimate relationships, but ultimately proposes a matey stoush followed by a chummy drink at the pub or a communal tuck into the fish and chips as the best, healing catharsis.
MORE Schepisi: Six Degrees of Separation
© Adrian Martin July 2002