Review: Is Anybody There?

May 1, 2009 at 10:02 am (film, review) (, , , , )

Michael Caine and Bill Milner

For his latest film, Is Anybody There? Sir Michael Caine is doing more publicity than usual. This film, he says at the premiere in west London, is a tough sell. Death is “hardly a barrel of laughs”.

Yet although Is Anybody There? is set in an old people’s home in a drizzly corner of 1980s seaside Britain, it will make you laugh – often and out loud.

Directed by John Crowley (Boy A), the film follows the blossoming friendship between the ageing Clarence (Caine) and ten year-old Edward (the excellent Bill Milner). Both are reluctant residents of a slapdash old people’s home, Lark Hall, run by Edward’s parents. Firmly rooted in the 80s with it’s brash clothing, discos and mullets, the film is based on the personal experience of writer Peter Harness who grew up in an old people’s home.

The film opens on a cheery Christmas gathering draped in colourful paper hats and tinsel. But Edward is angry at the world (he had to give up his bedroom for Arnold – he can’t afford the £50 a week) and tired of living with old people. He’s obsessed with death and tries to capture grisly final moments on his tape recorder.

Edward’s childish dramas are played out amidst the chaos of the old people’s home, whose eccentric residents are both charmingly stuck in their ways and slowly dying off. Just about holding it all together is Edward’s stoic mum, played convincingly by Anne-Marie Duff, who carries on with grim determination in the knowledge that she is doing a little “good” in the world.

Caine with director John Crowley

Caine with director John Crowley

Soon Clarence arrives in his rusty magician’s van, heavy under the burden of his own mortality and regret. Like his faltering van, Clarence’s grip on reality is fading fast and in the absence of a family, he can’t see much in life worth living for. Caine brings his usual gruff charm to his character, but balances it with a tender vulnerability that underlines the helplessness of old age – with the occasional “Fuck off!” of course. But it’s Milner with his skilful portrayal of a boy struggling against the world who steals the show.

The film is about the pain of growing up and the pain of growing old, with the two central characters each locked in their own misery but finding salvation in the other. Clarence, the retired magician gets a final boost by teaching Edward some old tricks. If this storyline sounds a bit twee, it isn’t. Clarence’s tutorials are sporadic, impatient and his pupil is reluctant. His hands can’t move like they used to.

It all seems very depressing, and at times it is. But this is one of the film’s strengths. It doesn’t glorify old age, but takes a stark look (through a series of poignant close-ups) at the wrinkles, and the hair loss – the wretchedness of it all. With such tricky subject matter it would have been easy to over-sentimentalise. But in Is There Anybody There? death becomes something to both laugh and cry at. Old age is a moment of both grace and despair.

The ups and downs of the characters are swept up into the narrative flow, and much like life itself, things have a way of plodding on. This is why at it’s heart Is Anybody There? is a celebration of life. It may be tough, but it’s worth having a good go.

In cinemas May 1.


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