Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:12 pm 
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The whole is less than the sum of its parts

I've just come back from seeing the highly anticipated Fred Schepisi movie, Last Orders, which I had seen described in the paper as a wake. I guess sometimes a wake can fall flat. In fact pretty often they do. A wake is not necessarily a celebration of the dead person' life. It may be just a bunch of fragmentary recollections and halfhearted efforts at good cheer. Whatever this movie is, it isn't a celebration of anything, and it isn't cheering or hopeful.

Parts of this story about a man's death and the mourners who dispose of his ashes were touching, certainly. As in the great old English films of the past, ensemble work prevails with everyone great, no one dominant. The deck is loaded with a cast like this. Helen Mirren and Bob Hoskins and (in his smaller role as the man who's now dead) Michael Caine are of course fine, superb, at their best, their most loveable and human-wonderful, really. Tom Courtenay and David Hemmings are full of assurance. The younger actors who fill in when wigs and makeup aren't enough to make the flashbacks half credible are energetic and competent. One has to be particularly taken by the actor, J.J. Feild, who plays the young Caine-a big, pretty fellow, prettier than Caine ever was, with a lot of authority and spirit, though he looks as much like a taller, blonder, spunkier Alec Guinness as like an early Michael Caine. A hops-cutting scene between this young Jack and his wife to be is the sweetest and most magical moment in the whole movie. But I confess to being rather disappointed with all of this, for various reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I found a considerable amount of the dialogue incomprehensible, especially, and crucially, in the movie's major, framing sequence in which the five mourners journey by car taking Jack's ashes to the sea. Ray Winstone, strong actor though he is (powerful in Nil by Mouth, terrifying in The War Zone) should always be subtitled, at least for non-British viewers.

It's a rather down-at-the-mouth kind of story, this Booker-Prize-winner adaptation from Graham Swift's novel, full of little humiliations, especially for Miss Mirren's sad-faced character, like having an institutionalized retarded daughter she must constantly visit, and having a little affair with your husband's best friend, Ray, that quickly has to end, and running short of money (in Jack's case) just when you're about to die, or (in Ray's case) having your daughter run off to Australia at 18 and stop writing, and then having your wife leave you too. It's also a story constructed out of switches back and forth in time and place and a mosaic of flashbacks. That may be what appealed to this director about the story, the challenge to put together something effective out of so many disparate pieces. In this case, however, such construction makes the whole thing complicated but sketchy. One can never quite figure out what David Hemmings is doing here. (One also can't figure out how the charismatic young man in Antonioni's Blowup turned into this big blowsy drunk with the Salvador Dali eyebrows.) It was unclear to me what his occupation in life is meant to have been and what he has to do with the other characters, other than pick fights with them and urge them to drink more at every pub along the way to the ashes-scattering at Margate. One key episode, the raising of needed money by the dying Jack from his hospital bed through a successful betting on a horse, isn't followed through very decisively, other than to show that the horse won. The tricky problems of reconstructing the book as a movie may have gotten the better of Schepisi here. When the end came I wasn't 100% sure it was the end, and that's never a good sign. Fred Schepisi was the master behind Six Degrees of Separation, a movie that's a marvel of adaptation (from John Guare's play) and that sparkles from start to finish. This one lacks the greatness of which Scepisi is sometimes capable. Mind you, it's better than watching Lasse Hallstrom, and I feel like a real meanie being lukewarm about a 'warm and touching' movie like this one containing such fine actors. But I have to be honest: I was quite disappointed. This was a difficult work to bring to the screen, but that doesn't make me want to love it, despite the marvelous ensemble cast and a director who's done great things in the past.

March 5, 2002

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