Adapted by Schepisi from the Booker Prize-winning novel by Graham Smith, Last Orders is the story of South London butcher Jack (Caine), whose life we encounter in montage as his son and a group of friends journey to the resort town where Jack had hoped to retire in order to spread his ashes on the sea. Jack's marriage to Amy (Helen Mirren) survives his stubborn, callous, life-long refusal to deal with their retarded daughter, June (Laura Morelli). Jack insists that June be placed in an asylum when she is a small child and then willfully endeavors to ignore her existence, an attitude that persists in the face of Amy's weekly visits.
Jack's gelid indifference to June turns us against him in the early going, but just as the narrative is supposed to, we gradually come to see him in a variety of different lights. As Amy remarks about her husband, Jack couldn't make himself love June, a fact for which Amy can never forgive him, and all at the same time, Jack never stops loving Amy, a fact for which Amy can never leave him. At the end of World War II, Jack and Amy adopt a baby, Vince, whose entire family is killed by a German missile attack. Jack never regards Vince as anything other than his own son, and hence he suffers mightily when as a young adult Vince (Winstone) refuses to join Jack in the family business.
Schepisi works the same magic with all his characters, showing us their failings, then insisting that we see their entire complicated humanity as well. Vince seems at first an ungrateful lout. Jack lovingly tries to teach Vince the secrets of buying, cutting and selling meat, but the boy coldly breaks his father's heart by opening a garage instead. Later in life, Vince impregnates the daughter of Lenny (David Hemmings), one of Jack's closest friends and abandons her to a six-year stint in the army. Later still, Vince turns his garage business into a car dealership, but when that makes him more prosperous than any in his dad's circle, he is sullen and stingy with his good fortune. But in the end, we understand that Vince never intends to hurt his parents, only to go his own way. Vince is far more devoted to Jack and Amy than he ever entirely shows them, but we witness it with the same pang of loss he feels when he journeys to the site where the enduring flower of their romance first burst into bloom.
Hoskins' character, Ray, is given the same respectful, detailed treatment. Ray and Jack first meet during basic training for World War II, fight side by side in the trenches and remain best friends the rest of their lives. Ray is beset with family problems, too. When his daughter Sue (Patricia Valentine) wants to go to Australia with her boyfriend, Ray tries to talk her out of it but eventually agrees to help her out financially, an act that infuriates his wife Carol (Denise Black) and precipitates their divorce. Yet, through negligence and indolence, Ray eventually loses track of Sue himself.
Last Orders is a melancholy film, but it's neither a heavy nor unhopeful one. The characters we meet lead unspectacular lives, each at times behaving quite badly. Yet this is a film that believes quite profoundly in the power of love and the virtue of friendship. The scene in which Jack first begins his courtship of Amy is nothing less than exquisitely beautiful. And the concluding passage in which Ray, Vince, Lenny and their undertaker friend Vic (Tom Courtenay) scatter Jack's ashes into a cold seascape wind, so brilliantly captures the pain of loss and the richness of treasured memory that we feel as if we have lost a friend ourselves.