Ray, Vic, Larry and Vince drive to Margate to scatter the ashes of their friend, Jack, from the end of the pier. As the trip goes on, the men think back to the past and the things that bind them together - in particular Jack's wife, Amy.
As ensemble casts go, it doesn't have the superstar pull of Ocean's 11 and it's not as young and sexy as American Pie. But Last Orders' gathering of old-school heavyweights is a cinematic event in itself. Hoskins and Mirren united beside the Thames for the first time since The Long Good Friday and Hoskins and Caine share screen time 15 years after Mona Lisa. This is the Brit Pack Mark I, and they're a joy to watch.
Rather than going for the gangster flash of the movies mentioned above, Last Orders allows its cast to shine as both individuals and as a unit. After all, that's what the story is about - the everyday tension between secret, inner desires and outward friendship and loyalty.
Graham Swift's Booker Prize-winning novel alternates chapters from several characters' viewpoints. This works on the page but wouldn't be practical on the screen. So, instead, writer-director Fred Schepisi opts for a complex story structure - within the two main strands (the men take Jack's ashes to Margate; Ray and Amy remember their brief affair), we're treated to flashback after flashback, some only a few seconds long.
Schepisi underlines how past events define the present - how these people are created by decisions taken or avoided earlier in their lives. This means the story jumps around from period to period simply because that's how memory works.
Like the book, the film captures the sense of a specific English, working-class generation - people in family businesses (butchers, undertakers, fruit 'n' veg stalls), people with solid names (Jack, Vic, Larry), people for whom a house in Margate is Shangri-La. This subject matter will chime with older audiences, but everyone should take the opportunity to catch some of Britain's finest performers gathered together in the same place at the same time.
Ambitious in structure and casting, it packs a lot into its screen time. Quality craftsmanship for a discerning crowd.
Reviewed by Alan Morrison