At the Coach and Horses Pub in East London an undertaker Vic bearing a box of ashes meets three friends who will drive together to the seaside resort of Margate to scatter the ashes of their friend Jack. Along the road Vic and the other travelers--Ray a gambler with a weakness for the horses; Lenny a one-time boxer whose weakness is booze; and Vince Jack's son who provides the roomy Mercedes borrowed from his car lot--share anecdotes about the good old days with Jack. Flashbacks also reveal darker truths including the devotion Jack's wife Amy has maintained for their institutionalized daughter whom Jack refused to recognize and Jack's own profound disappointment that his son Vince chose to sell cars rather than join his father in the family butcher business. The four men also make detours to a lovely farm a war memorial a pub or two and the great Canterbury Cathedral where other truths emerge including their shared war experiences. But the stirred memories never eclipse the strength and love derived from friendship a message symbolically conveyed as Jack's friends and son defy a windy rainstorm to honor his wishes and toss his ashes into the ocean. But there's one last secret that Jack's "last orders" reveal that would have him turning in his grave if he had had one.
The stellar ensemble cast of Michael Caine as Jack Tom Courtenay as undertaker Vic David Hemmings as ex-boxer Lenny Bob Hoskins as gambler Ray and Ray Winstone as Jack's son do exactly what an ensemble cast should do: bring to life their characters as they generously allow the other players to also come alive. Caine is certainly comfortable as the hard-working butcher with an eye for the ladies but a devotion to wife and son. Tom Courtenay in the least colorful role delicately handles his chores as the sensible undertaker who is the group's unofficial mediator. David Hemmings sparkles as the carousing Lenny and Hoskins is spot-on as a gambler on the verge of making his biggest bet yet. Winstone who drives the vehicle carrying Jack's ashes thoroughly convinces as the devoted son with a chip on his shoulder. And Oscar-nominated Helen Mirren subtly turns Jack's dowdy wife into a character of unexpected dimensions.
Director Fred Schepisi brilliantly handles what amounts to a mosaic of a film with so many characters to develop in so many different time periods. Schepisi skillfully meets the challenge and a story that could have unfolded with much confusion develops with an appealing clarity as more information surfaces. Schepisi who struck gold with the cast he brought together skillfully allows each character to come alive and be meaningful to the whole.