Fred Schepisi was among the first Australian directors of the New Wave era to make the pilgrimage to Hollywood. Following his empathetic portraits of coming of age in a Catholic seminary in The Devil’s Playground and Aboriginal persecution in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Schepisi transitioned into American filmmaking in the early 1980s with such eclectic films as the Western Barbarosa, science-fiction film Iceman, and Plenty, an undeservedly neglected gem in Meryl Streep’s early filmography. In doing so, he helped pave the way for other New Wave Australian directors to work across the pond in subsequent years, including Bruce Beresford with Tender Mercies, George Miller with his segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie, Gillian Armstrong with Mrs Soffel, Peter Weir with Witness, and so on. While Schepisi has made two excellent films in Australia since then – reuniting with Streep on Lindy Chamberlain drama A Cry in the Dark and adapting Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm – he’s worked predominantly overseas, and his CV is peppered with quality product – Roxanne, The Russia House, Six Degrees of Separation – along with some missteps or misguided attempts at commerce. The two films discussed below, 2001’s Last Orders and 2013’s Words and Pictures, represent both a palpable hit and a peculiar miss on their director’s part.
Director: Fred Schepisi
Stars: Michael Caine, Ray Winstone, Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings, Helen Mirren
Following the death of butcher Jack Dodds (Michael Caine), Jack’s adopted son Vince (Ray Winstone) and old friends Ray (Bob Hoskins), Vic (Tom Courtenay), and Lenny (David Hemmings) are tasked with transporting his ashes from London to the seaside town of Margate. The narrative of Last Orders shifts back and forth between the men’s journey to Margate and their past experiences, as they reminisce about their intertwined histories with Jack and ruminate on times both good and bad.
Last Orders, adapted by Schepisi from a novel by Graham Swift, is the sort of film it’s hard to describe without drawing on hoary old film critic clichés like “impeccably made”, “quietly compelling”, “finding the extraordinary in the mundane” and so on, and yet Last Orders is all of these things. Schepisi and company mine texture and nuance as the film alternates between days of yore and present events, showing how past actions, disappointments, and choices (some of them poor) shape future relationships and reverberate through time. It’s the work of a director at the top of his craft with a quarter of a century filmmaking under his belt: a sure thing from an assured hand working from a sure piece of source material with a sure cast. Michael Caine, who delivered some career-best work under another Australian filmmaker in The Quiet American the following year, is excellent as the magnetic but somewhat tragic catalyst for the story, his presence looming large even in his absence for much of the film. Hoskins, the film’s real lead and one of the most consistently underrated actors of the last 40 years, is equally excellent, and the film serves as a reminder of his untimely passing and the potentially great performances we’ve missed out on. Lending their supporting gravitas are Winstone, Courtenay, Hemmings (something of an honorary Australian, based on his appearances in Thirst, Harlequin, The Night We Called It a Day and direction of Ozploitation relics The Survivor and The Race for the Yankee Zephyr), and Helen Mirren as Jack’s widow, and the young actors cast in their youthful guises are well-matched to the stalwart ensemble. The behind the scenes crew are also an interesting roster of talent, and while many of their notable credits were on films at the cutting edge of a particular moment – cinematographer Brian Tufano shot Danny Boyle’s first three films, production designer Tim Harvey was a regular Kenneth Branagh collaborator, and editor Kate Williams provided editorial assistance on Baz Lurhmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet – on Last Orders they’ve created a film with a certain timeless quality and feel, its only real time-stamp being its recognisable veteran cast. Last Orders is a terrific film and one of its director’s best, which makes Words and Pictures, one of his least, all the more disappointing.
Director: Fred Schepisi
Stars: Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Bruce Davison, Amy Brennerman
Clive Owen plays Jack Marcus (another Jack!), a self-destructive, liquor-fuelled man of words teaching literature at an upscale college. Juliette Binoche plays Dina Delsanto, a new recruited art teacher debilitated by rheumatoid arthritis whose allegiance lies firmly with pictures. The pair clash repeatedly over the superiority of their respective art forms, in doing so kindling some romantic chemistry.
Words and Pictures‘ battle of the sexes coded as battle of the art forms would not have been out of place in the Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn films of the 1940s and 50s, but there’s a curdled milk quality to its execution here. Structurally, the film conforms to the basic contours of a romantic comedy, meaning nothing too unpredictable happens along the way. But there’s an underlying ugliness to the film and its two protagonists, a coarseness at odds with both the genre and the characters’ supposed artistic ideals, which ultimately makes their pretensions towards their respective art forms difficult to invest in or care about. While this could be charitably read as a subversion of rom-com tropes – certainly, Schepisi was familiar with the genre from his previous work on Roxanne and IQ, making him ideally placed to subvert some of its conventions – it feels more like a tonal misfire; moreover, the film and its execution are ultimately too bland to generate any genuine interest or frisson from this misfire. It’s refreshing to see mature leads in this sort of film, but Owen and Binoche, both gifted and capable performers, aren’t really playing to their strengths: the gruff Briton doesn’t take gracefully to light comedy, while the radiant Binoche is an ill fit for the ostensibly chilly Dina. The best descriptor I can think of for Words and Pictures is Burt Lancaster’s summation of Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success: “You’re a cookie full of arsenic”. Unfortunately, Words and Pictures isn’t as interesting as that sounds, nor remotely close to the rarefied air of Sweet Smell of Success…