Dir: John Crowley
The story of a young boy (Bill Milner) being raised in a nursing home owned by his parents (Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey), who becomes obsessed with finding out what lies beyond this life, to the point of recording the residents as they die, and his friendship with a crotchety resident (Michael Caine). Is Anybody There? Sounds like it could be a deadly combination of mawkish and depressing. Peter Harness’ screenplay is based on his own childhood, at least to the point that he grew up in a nursing home at around the time (the mid 80’s) that the film is set, and in John Crowley (interMission, Boy A) it’s attracted a decent director, and an extremely strong cast.
The cast is easily the strongest suit of what is a rather middle of the road film. Young Bill Milner, so effortlessly charming in last year’s lovely Son of Rambow, builds on the promise he showed there. He’s a very expressive actor, but never overeggs the pudding, he’s very real, and neither he nor Crowley allow Edward to become overly sweet, he remains a very real kid and his obsession with death and the afterlife feels not morbid but natural. David Morrissey doesn’t have a great deal to do as Dad, but he provides some strong comic relief, modelling a range of hideous 80’s fashions and getting several of the film’s best lines (as when he hits on the carer he and his wife employ, who reminds him “I’m 18” and he replies “I know, it’s fantastic”) but as the film goes on he stops being purely a figure of fun, and finds an emotional centre to the character. Even better is Anne-Marie Duff, who is still largely known as James McAvoy’s wife, which is deeply unfair to this talented and subtle actress, just watch her silent reaction as she listens to a tape that Milner has made of his father and tell me that’s not some of the best acting you’ve seen lately.
The big story, of course, is Michael Caine. I never used to like Caine, I always thought that he wasn’t acting, just being Michael Caine. Lately though he seems to have started to really put the effort in, and he’s pulled out some fine performances in the last few years, without leaning on his established persona. Clarence is another of these, a moving portrait of a man coming to the end of his life, and finding himself regretting rather a lot of what he’s done. Caine has said that his portrayal of Clarence’s dementia (which is dealt with less well in the script than in the performance) was inspired by the real experience of watching a friend die of Alzheimer’s, and he does it full justice with a respectful, grounded and detailed performance.
The problem is that, though it’s capably directed, this gentle film is rather repetitive; Clarence and Edward argue, then reconcile and become closer over and over and over again, and feels more like something that belongs on BBC Two on Sunday afternoon than it does in the cinema. It’s not an unpleasant journey, but it's one that never really strays from a well beaten path. Likeable, then, but hardly a must see.