Is Anybody There?
One thing that’s abundantly clear in the modern studio system is that Hollywood really just can’t get a handle on age. While commanding, intelligent roles for old women are tantamount to rocking horse shit, the issue of aging men is typified in one of three main varieties; the cantankerous coot (Secondhand Lions), the stoically masculine (Gran Torino), or the sprightly sage (the likes of Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine). Rarely does Hollywood directly address the realities of old age and the ravages of senility, preferring instead to maintain a kind of reverential distance with the elderly that’s warm and comfortable. Unsurprising then that this semi-autobiographical tale from writer Peter Harness about a senile old magician and a death-obsessed 'tween comes courtesy of Britain, a country whose film industry was founded on no frills, kitchen-sink miserablism.
From Boy A director John Crowley comes this ‘80s-set, sweet and sentimental coming-of-age story that despite strict adherence to formula – the innocent and the embittered both teach each other something – never shies away from the tragic nature of its subject matter. Sir Michael Caine in a typically giving performance carries the film in the role of retired magician Clarence, once The Amazing Clarence, now a bitter, Fagan-esque character struggling with the onset of dementia. Forcibly pushed into a makeshift rest home run by Anne-Marie Duff’s (Mrs. James McAvoy) overworked mum and her skirt chasing husband (David Morissey), Clarence is relentlessly pestered by young Edward (Bill Milner), who processes the constant flow of death into amateur ghost-hunting antics. Having stolen his bedroom, Edward dislikes Clarence from the off. He in turn, devastated by the loss of his wife (a sad tale slowly revealed), finds Edward’s morbid antics distasteful and the pair strike up a mutual disdain, the slow erosion of which is the crux of the tale.
The attention to period detail is impressive and the run-down old ramshackle house bleeds a convincing brown shirted, pint-and-a-game-of-darts, air of working-class, eighties Britain. Occasionally, it’s maybe a bit too “grim up North” but that’s a cliche for a reason and the overriding sense of it all really just makes you want to take a bath. The home is populated by a gallery of seasoned British thespians, who duly surrender their dignity for a series of thoroughly degrading, elderly antics. What’s crucial however is that despite their archetypical familiarity (one’s a drunk, one’s a letch, one still thinks it’s the roaring forties), you don’t simply dismiss them as comic relief because they are in fact the point of the story.
These people who fought wars and reared children have now again become children themselves, only minus the cute novelty factor. Trapped in prisons of inadequate flesh long after their minds have deserted them, all we ask is that they sit quietly and give us some peace. The fact that Harness and Crowley hone in on their outrageous behavior while simultaneously resigning them to the fringes of the story illustrates something as a society we’re all too frequently guilty of. A wince-inducing surely-they-wont-go-there final stage performance from Clarence illustrates in one swift chop (literally) what a private terror made public senility really is.
Caine, of course, is excellent as you would expect as the fiercely independent Clarence fearful of what he halfway knows awaits him, and the fact that Caine’s best friend, costume designer Doug Hayward, lost a battle with Alzheimer’s while Caine was filming lends a sad sense of knowing to his shifting lucidity. But the real revelation here is Milner, who in only his second feature after last year’s sleeper his Son of Rambow, also '80s set, once more brilliantly reflecting the idiosyncrasies of a time he wasn’t even alive to witness. Certainly a bright young talent to watch for in the future.
Starring: Michael Caine, Anne-Marie Duff, Bill Milner, David Morrissey
Director: John Crowley
Runtime: 95 Minutes
Distributor: Optimum Releasing