Fred Schepisi’s Last Orders , from Mr. Schepisi’s screenplay, based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Graham Swift, is clearly a labor of love and social conscience for the Australian writer-director-producer.
As it turns out, however, the novel was as much a trap for Mr. Schepisi as it was an opportunity. Though the book runs only about 300 pages, it is so densely packed with gracefully written insights into its characters, and their social and historical backgrounds, that even an ambitious adaptation and elaborate production like Mr. Schepisi’s seems skimpy and unclear. Indeed, the movie provides an object lesson in what novels do best and what movies do best. Mr. Schepisi can be credited with remaining focused on the central configuration of the book: the serio-comic odyssey of four South London pub habitués charged with carrying out a fifth’s last wishes–or as the title would have it, his last orders.
On a drive to Margate to spread their friend’s ashes, there are memory flashbacks connected to the four friends, the deceased, and all the women and children in their lives. Here the iconic edge of movies over novels is realized with the felicitous casting of Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings, Bob Hoskins and Ray Winstone as the four pilgrims, Michael Caine as their late friend, and Helen Mirren as his unfaithful widow (though under the most movingly extenuating circumstances).
The male characters are not salaried workers or wage slaves, but lower-middle-class entrepreneurs whose wives seldom think of careers. Mr. Caine’s Jack Dodd was a butcher because Dodd and Son had to stay in the family. Mr. Winstone’s Vince, Jack’s adopted son, rebelled against that tradition and opened a car dealership. Mr. Hoskins’ Ray gave up the insurance business to become a successful bookie. Mr. Hemmings’ Lenny was quickly disabused of his middleweight-championship aspirations and opened a fruit-and-vegetable stand as part of being a lifelong loser. Only Tom Courtenay’s Vic keeps a level head throughout, with a stable marriage, two sons to carry on his undertaking business, and a professional calm all the way to the disposal of Jack’s ashes at the seaside.
On the printed page, the characters do not immediately jump out at you as they do on the screen. In movies, actors collaborate with their characters to create an opaque barrier between the audience and the filmmaker; in novels, the characters are prose transparencies that never fail to reveal the author to the reader.
Unfortunately, Mr. Schepisi quickly loses his iconic advantage by having to resort to a second line of young actors to play the aged leads in flashbacks that go back almost half a century. We are distracted time and again by having to contemplate how little or how much they resemble the more familiar faces in the here and now. And particularly for American audiences, the rapid cockney dialect with which the actors sacrifice communication for realism is another problem. In his novel, Mr. Swift’s dialogue is no less authentic, but readers can contemplate the context of his masterly adjoined sentences at their leisure. In the movie, there is too little time on the screen for Mr. Schepisi to plant his visual signposts en passant , as it were.
Mind you, I am not endorsing the current Harry Potter-Lord of the Rings mania for literal adaptations of books into movies for fanatical adolescent readers. Hence, I do not fault Mr. Schepisi for a certain degree of compression, even though it meant sacrificing one of my favorite characters, Mandy, Vince’s wife, a surrogate daughter to Jack and Amy.
What Mr. Swift and Mr. Schepisi are ultimately saying is that every life, however ordinary it may seem on the surface, is important enough to be explored for its full complement of happiness and heartbreak, comedy and tragedy, luck and misfortune, all ending the same way–either in a grave or an urn. Strangely, Last Orders is the third movie I’ve seen recently– The Shipping News and Maelstrom are the others–in which an urn containing the ashes of the departed is hauled around from place to place. Is cremation the new order of the day, and does it signify a decline in traditional religious faith and the ascendancy of a universal environmentalism? Certainly, Mr. Swift goes much deeper into the metaphysical implications of his strange story than does Mr. Schepisi with his instinctively
humanistic bias, but that again reflects the aesthetic tendencies of two art forms and two media in collision with each other.
Kidman’s Comic Flop
Jez (Jeremy) Butterworth’s Birthday Girl , from a screenplay by Tom Butterworth and Jez Butterworth, falls flat despite its very talented cast and its satiric acuity with the minor characters.
Nicole Kidman is on hand with one of those strenuously athletic sensual performances to which we’ve become accustomed ever since she burst upon our consciousness in 1989 in Phillip Noyce’s Dead Calm . Here she plays Nadia, a Russian Internet bride summoned by hapless bank clerk John (Ben Chaplin) to his home in the London suburbs of Aldenston. After John discovers, to his horror, that Nadia does not speak a word of English, they are compelled to communicate solely through a variety of kinky sexual acts for which both have a startling affinity.
When Nadia’s two Russian “cousins” burst in upon the happy suburban sexfest, John gradually realizes that he’s been targeted and victimized by a dangerous gang of touristy Russian extortionists with Nadia as their bait–and, of course, that Nadia actually can speak fairly fluent accented English. Another surprise is that she had previously been impregnated by her Russian lover Alexei (Matthieu Kassovitz), much to John’s dismay and Alexei’s as well.
Alexei’s more practical sidekick, Yuri (Vincent Cassel), tries to keep a lid on all the complications while tricking John into robbing his own bank to save Nadia from an imaginary dire fate.
As I watched the film struggle with all its switches and turnabouts, I wondered why it wasn’t funnier, more charming or more exciting. Much of the problem lies in the nebbishy passivity of John in the face of one deception and disaster after another. I began to suspect that the filmmakers were in over their heads and had a hell of a time figuring out how to spring John and Nadia for the mandatory happy ending prescribed for a giddy comedy caper movie.
Unfortunately, the film manages to dissipate its suspense without convincing us that the ending makes any sense. Ms. Kidman displays a very resourceful personality in Birthday Girl . Her range of expressions is impressive, and her very suggestive physical dexterity keeps one watching even when her motivation is clouded over by endlessly shifting moods. But, as the late, great clown Bobby Clark complained in a stage revival of Victor Herbert’s Sweethearts , “Never was a thin plot so complicated.”