"Attention must be paid," Willy Loman's wife says after his demise in Death of a Salesman. Shift the story to England, change Willy into Michael Caine's Jack, and you've got Last Orders, Fred Schepisi's adaptation of a 1996 novel by Graham Swift. When the movie opens, Jack, a London butcher, has just died, and his final wishes included a car ride to Margate, where his ashes are to be scattered to the wind and the water. Three of Jack's best friends ' Ray (Bob Hoskins), Vic (Tom Courtenay) and Lenny (David Hemmings) ' take the assignment, and we're off on a journey not unlike the one recorded by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, including a brief stop at Canterbury Cathedral. Chaucer's pilgrims represented all of 14th-century England, from prince to pauper. Swift's (and Schepisi's) represent that part of 20th-century England that fought in the Second World War, then returned home to run their shops and share an occasional ' or more than occasional ' pint with their mates.
In other words, it's time once again to salute those extraordinarily ordinary men known collectively as The Greatest Generation. Fortunately, neither Swift nor Schepisi is into 21-gun salutes. In fact, when our boys, joined by Jack's adopted son Vince (Sexy Beast's Ray Winstone), stop off at the war memorial in Chatham, two of them have to take a leak under a nearby tree. That's because the group hasn't passed by a pub without passing through, starting with their local favorite, the Coach and Horses. And maybe it's the drink, or maybe it's Jack's ashes, but their lips just get looser and looser until all sorts of secrets and lies have come bubbling up from the past. Ray once had an affair with Jack's wife, Amy (Helen Mirren), who's never forgiven Jack for writing off their retarded daughter. Lenny, a former boxer who still throws a punch every now and again, can't forgive Vince for having gotten his daughter pregnant and then leaving her in the lurch. Somehow, Jack's death summons up a lifetime's worth of...living.
In interviews, Swift has said that history "is how little people lived through big things." And if the movie doesn't quite hit the tragic notes that Arthur Miller reached in Death of a Salesman, it does manage to hit both high notes and low notes, "Reveille" and "Taps." The thick Cockney accents may leave my fellow Americans behind, and the flashbacks-within-flashbacks can be disorienting. There's also an undercooked aspect to Last Orders, as if life hasn't been completely transmuted into art. But all this is overcome by the back-and-forth conviviality that binds these men to one another. "This ain't no Sunday outing," Lenny says to his fellow blokes during yet another stop on their pilgrims' progress. Indeed, it ain't. Paying its final respects to those who haven't asked for many, it's a funeral procession (and a wake) for a whole way of life.