IS ANYBODY THERE? is the poignant title of a bittersweet film about life, death, and magic. Its also one of Michael Caines best performances, and thats saying a great deal.
Hes The Amazing Clarence, a retired magician whose life hasnt turned out to be quite as amazing as his van insistantly proclaims. They, his life and the van, have brought him to Lark Hall, the retirement home that is the best hope of a married couple and their 10-year-old son, Edward (Bill Milner). Only a year in business, the establishment is sputtering along, and they are all having trouble adjusting, particularly Edward, who has had to give up his room to make room for another resident and the fee he provides. Surrounded by people on the verge of the Great Beyond, Edward has become obsessed with making contact with the ghosts he is sure inhabit the ramshackle house that his father is constantly renovating and that his mother never leaves. Tape recorder at the ready, he attempts, with no luck but with unquenchable hope, to capture the last mortal words, and the first immortal words, of people as they die. Obsessesion, or determination, is a trait he shares with his family. His mother (Anne-Marie Duff) has unquenchable compassion for her charges, but less for her husband (David Morrissey), while he has started noticing with unquenchable interest, that Tanya (Linzy Cocker), the 18-year-old aide killing time before starting college, is very attractive.
Clarence, when he arrives, is a roiling mess of emotions. Driving up in his van/home, he almost runs over Edward and then yells at him about it with the sort of scorn that only the old and ill-tempered can wield. Walking into Lark Hall, he does nothing to pretend that hes anything but angry to be sent to live among strangers, and yet the catch that Caine puts in Clarences voice between shouts, when he tells Mum that this is only temporary, shows a level of despair that is bottomless and desperate. It is that catch that informs the rest of his performance, though the characters guard is up after that. No matter the bluster, there is that indelible mark that has revealed so much. The relationships dont less complicated, with Edward and Clarence getting on each others nerves until each comes to the slow realization of what they like about each other that makes at first for an uneasy truce, and then a real bonding with each filling an unlikely need for a mentor in the other that isnt otherwise on offer.
The script by Peter Harnes is a well-written character study, with colorful supporting players in the form of the other residents, each with a quirk or two that is distinct, but not overpowering. Its Caines film, though, as he slowly relives the life hes led, comes clean about where he went wrong, and plucks himself up to keep going despite faculties that arent what they used to be. Milner as Edward is a nice foil for the veteran actor, bringing a fresh unselfconsciousness and a refreshing lack of saintliness as he watches the doddering of the residents with a mixture of boredom and annoyance. They play off one another with not a trace of contrivance or of false saccharine, either in the way they initially clash, or later when they delight in one anothers company, with a rocky companionship that gets them through the trials that both growing up and growing old bring. Director John Crowley is smart enough to let the camera linger on them, with only a subtle pulling away as the old man teaches the boy sleight-of-hand, leaving them to their own world without the bother of other peoples opinions.
It being a tale of old age as well as coming of age, IS ANYBODY THERE? is replete with passages, but they and the reactions to them are made with honesty, not sentiment, and amid the grief and absurdity, there are the sort of kindnesses that require courage, that require souls seemingly so ordinary, that are, unaware, instinctively, in tune with the rhythms of life and death. The driving force here is that no matter what age, what condition, life goes on. Thats the bad news. Thats also the good news.