Christmas Day, 1986, at the English coastal retirement home Lark's Hall marks more than the holiday. It's been a year since ten year-old Edward's (Bill Milner, "Son of Rambow") parents founded the home and before the day is over it will the last day of one of its residents' lives. Edward's mum works hard and has a kind heart, but her husband and son are rebelling against a life lived amid the dying. Edward's only home entertainment is his pursuit of ghosts, until an irascible, troubled old magic act known as "The Amazing Clarence" (Michael Caine, "The Dark Knight") is sent by social services in "Is Anybody There?"
Director John Crowley ("Intermission"), who explored the reintroduction of someone into society last year with the terrific "Boy A," here observes the withdrawal from same of the elderly as seen through the eyes of a child. The autobiographical script by Peter Harness progresses in the usual fashion (with no debts to "Forrest Gump" a la "Benjamin Button," a film which begins much like this one) and although his protagonist's obsession with the after life verges on being too terribly pat, nothing about his characters is. Crowley's gotten a realistic kid out of Milner and Caine's best work in quite some time.
Our first meeting of the family who run Lark Hall tells us a lot. Mum (Anne-Marie Duff, "The Magdalene Sisters," "Notes on a Scandal") is an attractive woman made plain by hard work and the drab nurse's uniform she wears with a cardigan, but she's always got a smile and real caring emanates from her (it's her touch that convinces crotchety Clarence to 'give it a go'). Dad (David Morrissey, "The Water Horse," "The Other Boleyn Girl") is trying to maintain the appearance of youth in middle age and feels yoked and under appreciated as Lark Hall's handy man. Dad only lights up around the help, Tanya (Linzey Cocker), a teenager from the village. Edward is uncomfortable around all the old people, yet fascinated when he witnesses the death of Arthur (Karl Johnson, "Copying Beethoven," "Hot Fuzz"), whose 'ghost' he tries to capture via tape recorder. He's also hoping to get his old bedroom back, now that Arthur won't be needing it anymore.
Crowley and Harness know that real kids are self-centered, something which Edward demonstrates by pulling the fire alarm to clear the house as instructed by one of his ghost hunting programs (Arthur C Clarke’s Strange World). When Clarence arrives, Edward only perceives him as the scary old guy who almost ran him over in his tricked out van and the new occupant of his former room, but when Edward finds some of Clarence's old publicity mockups, he begins to see a real person. Clarence, however, wants nothing to do with the kid, until, that is, Edward becomes a guardian of sorts, protecting Clarence from his own suicidal tendencies. Clarence finds a new lease on life trying to convince Edward that it's not all about death. If that sounds corny, it isn't in these filmmakers' hands.
Crowley mostly avoids sentiment, picturing life in the rambling old house with the harsh light of reality filtered through natural bursts of humor. The former professional performer is disgusted by the children's entertainer innocently employed by Edward's mum and eventually introduces the good old British singalong as a diversion from an awkward passing ("Wish Me Luck (As You Wave Me Goodbye)" is the tune chosen). Edward's habit of recording dead people comes back to haunt him when he picks up a conversation between his dad and Tanya and when he chooses to run away from his troubles by taking Clarence on a surprise field trip things don't go as planned.
Caine plays in multiple registers here and he melds them all - the curmudgeon, the mentor, the entertainer, the widower, the bewildered old man - into a moving portrait. Young Milner proved himself adept at the isolated individualist in "Rambow," but he's not merely repeating that performance here. Instead, Edward forges his own path, takes matters into his own hands, yet really learns a thing or two from the older man. Duff is great as the caring yet harried mom who gives Clarence peace. You can feel the kindness radiating from her. Morrissey takes midlife crisis and makes us empathize with him even at his most pathetic. Support from the senior thesps is also notable, from Peter Vaughan's ("The Remains of the Day," "Death at a Funeral") palsied magic show volunteer to Leslie Phillips's ("Colour Me Kubrick: A True...ish Story," "Venus") roguish rascal and from Rosemary Harris's ("Spider-Man 3," "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead") wistful one-legged dance instructor to Sylvia Syms's ("What a Girl Wants," "The Queen") manipulative matriarch.
Crowley and his production team make a real character out of Lark Hall itself and the surrounding countryside feels entrenched in two decades past. Director of photography Rob Hardy, who won a BAFTA for Crowley's last film, does beautiful work here, capturing the chill of the English coast and the verdancy it produces inland in his images.
"Is Anybody There?" doesn't beat down a new filmic path in forging its February/December relationship, but there are characters well worth getting to know and delightful detail to draw the eye every step of the way.
Robin did not see this film.
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