Is Anybody There?

Is Anybody There?


Reviewed by: Robyn Jankel

Edward (Bill Milner) has not lead the life of an ordinary young boy ever since his parents (Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrisey) decided to set up a retirement home and bring him up alongside their ancient houseguests. Surrounded by death – and the nearly dead – his greatest fascination is with the afterlife. Bullied at school and resentful of his decrepit neighbours, Edward spends his time attempting to record the residents’ final breaths, and the sound of the soul as it makes its final break for freedom. That is, until the arrival of “The Amazing” Clarence (Michael Caine), a retired magician in the early throes of dementia, who has no intention of settling down and dying peacefully.

An unassuming take on a devastatingly common affliction, Is Anybody There? tackles the subject of dementia without fanfare or schmaltz. It is the film’s Britishness, and resulting healthy dose of black humour, which keeps it from becoming cheesy or shallow. Writer Peter Harness actually did grow up in a retirement home and, perhaps as a result of this, the funniest moments are both realistic and touching. The tale itself, which is at its heart relatively macabre, remains surprisingly light-hearted, thanks in no small part to the gentle touch of director John Crowley and a truly astonishing cast.

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In a film which is a masterclass in acting across the board, Caine, in particular, is astonishing. Not only does he switch effortlessly between grumpy old man and devastated widower, he also performs magic tricks as though he has been doing them his entire life. He is stunningly accurate in his portrayal of a man slipping gradually into dementia and, despite the character losing his grip on reality, the actor maintains a remarkably strong presence. At just 13, Milner is more than up to the job of sharing a screen with heavyweight Caine, and it is the scenes with Clarence and Edward which truly shine.

Giving an honest, open look at the realities of growing old and dying, Crowley manages to steer clear of unnecessary gravitas without losing the heart of the story. Besides Caine and Milner, the cast is sprinkled with familiar British names, including Thelma Barlow and Leslie Phillips, all of whom offer understated-yet-effective performances. A lovely script and standout performances are highlighted by beautiful camerawork and some scarily accurate 1980s costumes – especially in the case of David Morrisey, whose hair deserves a credit of its own.

There is a slightly unrealistic element in the lack of attention given to Edward’s bizarrely morbid hobby. Equally, his mother’s blissful ignorance of her husband’s interest in the young nursing assistant does strain credulity a bit too far. Despite this, the film remains laugh-out-loud comical and deeply tragic, often at the same time. Clarence’s struggle to come to terms with his loss of independence is saved from becoming mawkish by the constant presence of Edward. The boy’s utter despair with and lack of empathy at the uselessness of his elderly housemates provides a welcome antidote to an otherwise depressing theme.

One suspects that had this been an American film, it would have been bogged down with a miserable score and a conclusion that death is the ultimate tragedy. Instead, it becomes increasingly clear that the real tragedy is not to make the most of the time that we have. Like the equally understated British black comedy Waking Ned, Is Anybody There? may focus on death but its unpretentious message reminds us to enjoy life.

Reviewed on: 01 May 2009
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An elderly magician reluctantly entering a retirement home bonds with an inquisitive young boy and persuades him life is for living.
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Director: John Crowley

Writer: Peter Harness

Starring: Michael Caine, Bill Milner, David Morrisey, Anne-Marie Duff, Linzey Cocker, Garrick Hagon, Rosemary Harris, Thelma Barlow

Year: 2008

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK

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