Time, gentlemen, time

Film - Philip Kerr raises a toast to a superb adaptation of Graham Swift's Booker Prize-winning nove

It was with a sense of real trepidation that I sat down to watch Fred Schepisi's film of Graham Swift's Booker Prize-winning novel, Last Orders. After all, several recent film versions of books had hardly been distinguished by their excellence. What if this one turned out to be a dud - as did, for example, Working Title's laughable adaptation of Louis de Bernieres's Captain Corelli's Mandolin? And wasn't Fred Schepisi the same Australian who directed the lamentable I.Q. (1994), not to mention the mawkishly sentimental Roxanne (1987)?

I needn't have worried, be-cause this is arguably Schepisi's best film - ever. At the very least, it is his most satisfying film since The Chant of Jim-mie Blacksmith (1978). Last Orders may have been made for next to nothing, but it is distinguished by an excellent script written by Schepisi himself, some brilliant editing by Kate Williams, and several outstanding performances from a cast that represents the very best of British screen acting.

Ray (Bob Hoskins), Lenny (David Hemmings) and Vic (Tom Courtenay) meet up in a sarf London pub, the Coach and Horses, both to raise a pint to the memory of their old mate Jack (Michael Caine), a life-and-soul type who has died of cancer, and to embark upon a pilgrimage of sorts: a journey - by way of Canterbury - to Margate, where they will carry out butcher Jack's last order by depositing his ashes in the sea. Jack's wife, Amy (Helen Mirren), declines to accompany them on their journey, preferring to visit her grown-up daughter in the mental institution where she has been confined since birth. Hers is a pilgrimage of its own, as it happens, because Amy has also gone to say goodbye to her daughter.

Meanwhile, Jack's mates - a bookmaker, an undertaker and an ex-boxer - are driven down to Margate in some style by Jack's car dealer son, Vince (Ray Winstone). Along the way, they sink a few pints and reminisce, noisily, about Jack, while each man nurses thoughts of his own life's disappointments and, ultimately, his individual human frailty.

If all this sounds rather morbid and depressing, it isn't. The characters are much too well drawn to be anything other than compelling; and there is a great deal of blokish humour among these four cockney pilgrims, which serves to relieve several moments of genuine pathos; moreover, the film is edited in a way that stops this simple enough tale from ever running out of steam.

But there is also, perhaps, an extra poignancy about Last Orders: three of these actors - Caine, Hemmings and Courtenay - were the leading young stars of British cinema back in the Sixties. Their own advancing years - Caine is now almost 70, Courtenay is 64, and Hemmings is 60 - add a parallel interest to the experience of watching Last Orders. Minutes before seeing the film, I had chanced to see a clip of a young, good-looking Hemmings in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup (1966), and couldn't help but reflect on the cruelty of cinema for an actor, always to be reminded of how old he looks in comparison with how young and handsome he used to be. Caine was surely the best-looking and most successful of the lot. As I watched the film, I was possessed of a sense of life calling last orders on this stalwart trio ere long. All of which seems to add value to the experience of seeing Schepisi's film; perhaps (although one hesitates to say so) even a sense of urgency.

For all that, it is the marginally younger Hoskins and Mirren who steal the picture. Hoskins plays a bookmaker who has been in love with the Mirren character, Amy, all his life - an idea that does not seem so unlikely to anyone who first saw them together, 22 years ago, in The Long Good Friday. The scenes between these two are the best in the film, and Hoskins manages to put more expression into the set of his shoulders and the arch of an eyebrow than others bring to a whole soliloquy in Hamlet. On the strength of these performances, I should not be at all surprised if both of them win a Bafta.

In January last year, I had the dismal experience of watching a film adaptation of Martin Amis's novel Dead Babies - the worst British film of 2001. In Last Orders, by contrast, I am confident that I have already seen what will turn out to be the best British film of 2002.

Last Orders (15) is on general release

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.