When two-time Oscar winner Sir Michael Caine describes his latest performance as his best ever, you’d be a fool not to take note. And as Clarence in Is Anybody There? Sir Michael is undoubtedly on top form.
Clarence is a grumpy 84-year old retired magician who has been sent by Social Services to Lark Hall, a retirement home in Yorkshire. He’s cantankerous partly because he doesn’t want to live with a load of old people and partly because he’s still grieving for his wife. There he meets Edward (Milner), a 10-year-old boy who lives at the home with his parents and who has an obsession with ghosts and the afterlife. Using his trusty old tape recorder, Edward’s mission is to capture the sound of the soul as it leaves the body at the moment of death. After an elaborate ghost trap goes wrong and Clarence tries to take his own life, the two unhappy souls find solace in each other and an unlikely friendship develops.
It would have been all too easy for Is Anybody There? to slide into mawkish sentimentality, with its themes of death, senility and grieving to the fore. But thanks to the witty script by Harness, faultless direction by Crowley and the two central performances by Caine and Milner, it manages to avoid that fate. Caine is clearly relishing his role as the irascible Clarence, but it’s by no means a straightforward one. Behind the external gruffness is a melancholy rooted in regret, and with his career and his wife long gone, Clarence is searching for redemption. It’s this quest that Caine plays so beautifully, while also capturing Clarence’s slide into senility perfectly, making some of the later scenes all the more touching.
Meanwhile, Milner’s Edward is the perfect foil for the crotchety old magician and the Son of Rambow star is a natural in this timid but quietly intelligent role. While Clarence is looking for answers about his past, Edward is looking for reassurance about the future. As a result, neither is focused sufficiently on the present and it’s this which gives the film its impetus. As well as being emotionally engaging, this is at times a very funny film. With a supporting cast including the likes of Phillips and Syms, the veteran actors add a depth to an already excellent ensemble cast (Duff and Morrissey are quietly superb) and although it is necessarily a slow-moving story, you’d be hard pressed not to come away feeling moved and all warm inside. Thoroughly recommended.
EXTRAS ** Interviews with stars Michael Caine, Bill Milner and Anne-Marie Duff, and director David Morrissey; plus the theatrical trailer.