Is Anybody There?
Director : John Crowley
Screenplay : Peter Harness
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Michael Caine (Clarence), Bill Milner (Edward), Anne-Marie Duff (Mum), David Morrissey (Dad), Thelma Barlow (Ena), Linzey Cocker (Tanya), Adam Drinkall (Stuart), Garrick Hagon (Douglas), Rosemary Harris (Elsie), Ralph Ineson (Mr. Kelly), Angie Inwards (Mavis), Karl Johnson (Arthur), Leslie Phillips (Reg), Ralph Riach (Clive), Elizabeth Spriggs (Prudence), Sylvia Syms (Lilian), Peter Vaughan (Bob)
Is Anybody There? is a quirky, sometimes schmaltzy British dramedy that mixes meaningful ruminations about growing old with broad black comedy about the ultimately awkward nature of death (there is simply nothing graceful about a corpse, especially one you’re trying to move quickly upstairs while the relatives are knocking on the door). The story takes place at a small retirement home in the late-Thatcher-era English countryside. The home is run by a desperate couple (Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey) who are clearly feeling the pangs of encroaching middle age even as they are constantly dealing with the alternately cranky, befuddled, and amusingly bizarre lives of the elderly in their care.
The center of the film is held by the unlikely (except in movies like this one) relationship between the caretakers’ 11-year-old son, Edward (Bill Milner), and the home’s newest resident, an angry widower and former magician named Clarence (Michael Caine). Having lived for much of his childhood in a home where dying is the norm, Edward has turned a bit inward, investing much of his energy and imagination into the pursuit of ghosts, whose presence he is constantly trying to preserve with a cassette recorder he places under the beds of the recently deceased. Morbid to be sure, but as played by the young star of Son of Rambow (2007), Edward is both understandable and sympathetic, even when he lashes out quite aggressively at those around him.
Clarence, meanwhile, has his own issues to deal with, namely the death of his beloved wife and his own encroaching senility, neither of which he handles with anything resembling grace. Rather, he has wrapped himself up in his own bitterness and hostility, which is fired all the more by social services forcing him to live in the retirement home, a place in which he cannot feel comfortable because to do so would mean giving in to his mortality. Thus, it is not surprising that he and Edward eventually form the tenuous bond of outsiders, even if they’re on opposite sides of the life spectrum.
The retirement home also provides a number of subplots, the most important of which is the strained marriage between Edward’s Mum and Dad: Mum spends all of her time and energy taking care of the home’s residents, which makes her emotionally unavailable to both her husband and her son, while Dad’s eye has begun to roam, landing quite frequently on Tanya (Linzey Cocker), the curvaceous teenager who helps out during the week. Dad’s potential wandering is less a product of sexual longing than a misguided salve for his need to feel young again, which connects his emotional plight thematically with Clarence’s desire to rekindle the past in order to fix his previous mistakes. Director John Crowley (Boy A) juggles all of this with a touch that is sometimes light and sometimes heavy, especially when he is drawn too easily into obvious gags about late-’80s hair and clothing styles (Dad’s initial foray into reviving his youth involves a bad mullet and even worse acid-washed jacket). There is also the inherent difficulty of paying due respect to the twilight of life while also building broad, sitcom-ish gags around it.
In the end, though, this is Michael Caine’s show, and those who first saw him in saucy roles like the titular womanizer in Alfie (1966) will find particular pleasure in the layers he brings to Clarence’s misanthropy and regret. Caine allows his character to be both proud and pathetic, and he finds ways to intertwine the two poles to make us feel the depths of his despair even as we sense the fleeting possibility of redemption. The film doesn’t offer any easy answers, and it ends on a bittersweet note that gives credence to both the finality of death and the importance of every moment in life, even those at the end that feel like they’ve already been lost.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Stony Island Entertainment