Director: John Crowley. UK. 2008. 92 mins.
The unexpected bond between a morbid young boy and a grumpy old man provides the basis of a touching, poignant little drama inIs There Anybody There’An original screenplay by Peter Harness deftly balances heartache and whimsy, charm and warmth - but without drowning the tale in undue sentimentality.Boy Adirector John Crowley delivers a trim running time and a roll call of excellent performances.
Commercial considerations have to be tempered by the subject matter of death and the afterlife and a cast that is dominated by veteran actors. The wonderful double-act of Michael Caine and Bill (Son Of Rambow) Milner, plus a positive critical response, should help the film to make a respectable impression theatrically in the UK and key international markets before a considerable afterlife of its own.
Caine is the consummate old pro who never delivers a bad performance, but Is There Anybody There’ makes more demands on him than any role has for a while and his subtle, endearing performance could even put him in the frame for awards consideration. Caine is Clarence, an elderly magician and widower who reluctant takes up residence in an old-folks home run by young couple, Stevie (David Morrissey) and his wife (Anne-Marie Duff). A seasoned cast of British veterans (Leslie Phillips, Sylvia Syms, Rosemary Harris, Peter Vaughan etc) lend real character to the residents even though many of them are given precious little to do.
Edward (Bill Milner) is the 11 year-old son of the proprietors. A lonely lad, he is obsessed with death, the spiritual world and whether there might be life after death. The misanthropic, Scrooge-like Clarence seems an unlikely friend for an angry, misfit of a boy, but after a period of initial hostility the two soon start to find common ground. Clarence helps Edward to come to terms with mortality and live in the moment. Edward allows Clarence to make peace with his past as he starts to experience the first signs of dementia.
Is There Anybody There’ sounds depressing, but the material is treated with a light hand that becomes apparent in everything from the gentle humour to the unforced period detail (the story is set in 1987 with The Two Ronnies on television and Stevie sporting a dreadful mullet) and the way family conflicts are woven through the tale without unbalancing it. Naturally, it does tug at the heartstrings and there is a certain predictability to events, but the film is funny and endearing. There is no softening the harsh indignities of old age and both Caine and Milner are so completely believable within their characters that you are always willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Boy A showed Crowley’s fascination with the relationships that help to make us human. Is There Anybody There’ revisits those themes in a gentler settling, but is equally affecting and well-acted by the hand-picked cast.
Big Beach LLC
David M Thompson