Movie Review by Lisa Henshall
Starring: Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, Ray Winstone, Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay
Director: Fred Schepisi
Based on Graham Swift’s 1996 Booker Prize-winning novel, this film is magnificently understated and allows the cream of the British acting profession to shine in all their glory. From start to finish it doesn’t put a foot wrong, thanks to the subtle guidance of Australian director Fred Schepisi (whose previous films include SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION and ROXANNE). He skilfully guides us through the lives of four old drinking pals from Bermondsey, as they reminisce and re-evaluate their lives after the death of their close friend Jack (Michael Caine). The narrative is multi-layered and takes us through many flashbacks, and in some cases flashbacks within flashbacks. And although it is a drama about ordinary people’s lives, as with reality, it is still filled with laughter and humour often at unexpected moments.
At the start of the film we meet Ray (Bob Hoskins), Vic (Tom Courtenay) and Lenny (David Hemmings) propping up the bar of their local pub, The Coach & Horses, with Jack’s ashes sitting in a jar in front of them…they even joke that it’s about the size of a pint of lager. With the arrival of Jack’s son Vince (Ray Winstone), in a Mercedes borrowed from his own second-hand car lot specially for the journey, they begin their pilgrimage to carry out Jack’s last orders – to scatter his ashes from the end of Margate pier (his favourite memories were spent there). The trip should be a sombre one if not necessarily sober, but the men soon fall into their usual patter and the jokes begin to flow.
Only Jack’s widow, Amy (Helen Mirren), is conspicuous by her absence having her own very different feelings about Margate. As we follow the men’s journey, their discussions in the car and occasional stops for a drink along the way, are intercut with Amy’s own more personal journey to visit her daughter June on her birthday. We learn that every Thursday Amy makes the long bus journey by herself to visit June, and has done for 50 years, even though June has never in all that time recognised her or acknowledged that she knows who Amy is (she was given up for adoption because Jack refused to have a child with learning disabilities).
And in between these two stories, Schepisi takes us seamlessly through an array of flashbacks – some in the past show the start of Jack and Ray’s friendship in the army during WW II, and the reasons behind Lenny’s distrust of Vince (after he got Lenny’s daughter pregnant and then deserted her). Other more recent flashbacks allow us to see Jack’s illness and his attempts to ensure Amy is well looked after once he’s gone, by laying bets on a horse-race from his hospital bed – which all help to guide us through the foibles and histories of all the main characters. And in a poignant exchange between Ray and Amy, shortly after Jack’s death, they both re-evaluate their lives and experiences together and it becomes obvious that Ray has always been in love with Amy. Maybe now that Jack is gone, Ray will have the confidence to tell Amy how he feels?
The acting is exceptional among all the leads and even the actors playing the younger versions (in the flashbacks) are also excellent, particularly J J Feild who is incredible as the young Jack – and manages to capture the man without giving us a caricature of Michael Caine. Among the older leads Helen Mirren gives possibly the best performance, playing against type as the dowdy and quiet Amy. The subtlety of her characterisation helps us to understand why she doesn’t want to scatter Jack’s ashes in Margate, but also why this doesn’t mean that she didn’t love him. If you do get a chance to go and see this film then take it, as gems like this don’t come along very often.