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