Delicately handled and superbly textured, this fine adaptation of Graham Swift’s Booker Prize-winning novel deals with all the really big subjects: love, friendship, death, life. Avoiding cheap sentimentality as it explores the lives of Londoners with intelligence and affection, Fred Schepisi’s beautifully crafted film centers on a sextet of terrific, iconic actors in excellent form. Given supportive reviews and savvy marketing, this treat for mature audiences should enjoy an appreciative reception worldwide, with a long ancillary future indicated.
Spanning 60 years and told from different viewpoints, Swift’s tome posed plenty of challenges for screen adaptation that were successfully overcome in Schepisi’s meticulous version. Casting directors Patsy Pollock and Shaheen Baig also deserve major kudos for a top job in finding youthful actors to play the main characters in the extended flashbacks. Pic represents superior craftsmanship in all departments, ensuring that it provides a satisfying bigscreen experience despite intimate subject matter.
In the opening scenes, three old men meet in an East London pub to toast their recently deceased buddy Jack (Michael Caine). Vic (Tom Courtenay), a local undertaker, brings Jack’s ashes; racetrack gambler Ray (Bob Hoskins) and ex-boxer-turned-fruiterer Lenny (David Hemmings) stand at the bar where they used to drink regularly with Jack. On this sad day, they’re joined by Jack’s son, Vince (Ray Winstone), a car dealer, and set out to fulfill Jack’s last request — to throw his ashes into the sea at Margate, where Jack and his wife, Amy, honeymooned in 1939 on the eve of WWII.
Amy (Helen Mirren) doesn’t join the men because she’s visiting her institutionalized 50-year-old daughter, June (Laura Morelli). Born as the result of the first sexual encounter between Jack (played as a young man by JJ Feild) and Amy (Kelly Reilly) in a hop field in Kent, June has been severely retarded all her life.
Her mother, who has visited her almost every week, has never seen a sign of recognition from her daughter, who just sits silently playing with children’s toys. Jack never joined her on these pilgrimages, a nagging bone of contention between them throughout their marriage.
The four men drive in Vince’s Mercedes, with detours along the way. Flashbacks, some extremely brief, others more extended, flesh out the stories of these supposedly ordinary Londoners. When Amy got pregnant, the couple married and Jack inherited the butcher shop established by his father. He met Ray (Anatol Yusef plays the character as a young man) in Egypt during the war, and when the young soldiers discovered they came from the same London suburb they became instant friends. Shown a photograph of Amy, Ray was smitten.
Over the years, Jack, Ray and their neighbors, stoic Vic and hot-tempered Lenny, remain close friends. The chief disappointment of Jack’s life, apart from his daughter, is that son Vince leaves the family business to set up on his own as a car salesman. Jack is blithely unaware of the lingering attraction between his wife and Ray, which is consummated for a brief period after Ray accompanies her on a visit to June. Other complications ensue.
One of the major pleasures of the film is the performing of some great British talent. Caine, Courtenay and Hemmings were all big stars of the British film revival in the ’60s and carry with them indelible memories of those halcyon days. They’re all in excellent form, though Hoskins, from a later generation of actors but fitting in well, has the meatiest role.
Winstone is in fine form as the blustering Vince; Mirren, who provides the film with its heart and soul, is exquisite. The aging process is achieved via makeup and fine acting rather than by means of prosthetics.
Of the younger generation, Feild manages the tricky task of playing the young Michael Caine with aplomb, capturing the actor’s style, mannerisms and even voice with finesse. Yusef, Cameron Fitch and Reilly are acceptable as the youthful counterparts to Hoskins, Courtenay and Mirren, respectively, as is Hemmings’ son, Nolan, who plays his father as a young man.
Schepisi’s intelligent and thoughtful adaptation ensures that the film works smoothly through a complex series of time shifts, and though there’s plenty of humor, the film succeeds best on an emotional level. Only the most hardened will remain dry-eyed.
Schepisi has always favored the anamorphic-sized screen, and his collaboration with d.p. Brian Tufano is a happy one. From the rich texture of the intimate scenes to the expansively filmed exteriors, the film has a very visual, rich look. Paul Grabowsky’s music score enhances the drama on every level.