Old Jack here has to be careful with the films sometimes. Anything too close to home can trigger panic attacks and shrieking in my ageing colleagues in Doom’s Antechamber. Those films that scare: old Jack tries to watch them when the others are out at shows, or special swimming classes, or after there’s been a bit of an incident and the blues and twos fill the driveway. First sign of a trolley and a body-bag and I pop to the bathroom.
Is Anybody There? broadcasts itself in its title. I ran a long bath, propped the iPad on my belly, and ended up as wrinkly and puckered as the terrific Michael Caine who plays ageing magician Clarence Parkinson. Come the end, when Nurse Starchy-Palms shoved open the door, tears had done the same to my face.
This is a lovely film with lovely performances from its headline characters: Clarence, the magician, and Edward, the ten-year old trapped by his parents’ ambitions into living in a nursing home with decrepit British Character Actors. In many ways, the place is ideal for him, for the lad at the start of life is watching the disintegration of everyone at the other end. Much like Harold in Harold and Maude (1971), he obsesses about death, going so far as to shove his tape recorder (for this is in the 1980s, kids) under the beds of the lingering to catch their final breaths and the moment something may happen. You see why this isn’t one for the TV room?
The boy meets Clarence on the road, where the old Caine nearly hits him with his Amazing Clarence!-cum-ice-cream-van mobile. Caine’s Clarence emerges, snarling with rage, and Edward runs off. Tension thus in place, they meet again when the old man takes the room of the corpse that contributed Edward’s last recording.
The majority of the film flits between the domestic tensions of the parents, Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey giving off the pain of over-work as it rips them apart; the old codgers in their TV room; and the testy, then friendly, then tear-inducing relationship between Edward and Clarence.
The parents’ story is the least entertaining. They had ambitions, but they married young, had a kid, then took on the nursing home only to realise the stress, effort and financial panic involved (see Orla Brady’s character in How About You… (2007) for more care-manager-under-stress fun). They are entering middle-age and the awfulness of their circumstances is destroying them…know what you’re biting off, people…
The old codgers. Well, they’re over the line into Laugh at The Old territory, not with us. Hmmm. The film gives them moments of sympathy and pity, but they’re one-note. Thelma Barlow gives elfin joy; Elizabeth Spriggs gives teary and pathetic; Peter Vaughan – oh yes, the great Peter Vaughan – gives shaky and fading; and Leslie Phillips gives brittle and vague. There’s a sense of career irony about Phillips as he is pursued, in two short and instructive scenes that Graspy Gertrude could do well to study, by a woman. Ding dong, he isn’t thinking, in his terror, before succumbing to one last relationship. This group, whilst lovely and characterful and so much more than competent, make old Jack feel observed and caricatured rather than understood and, well, liked. That said, writer Peter Harness, is rumoured to have had Edward’s experience back in the day, so why should he understand the decrepit? He was the child. So, you could regard this as instructive for those of us at the grumpy end of life’s adventure.
And that takes us to the journey of Edward and Clarence. The boy and the old man, putative grandfather, really, befriend one another. No real surprises: Clarence sees the boy being bullied and gives him strategies to cope. The boy teases out Clarence’s life story – he had been married, she is dead, he is riddled with regrets and loss, and memories of a life on the road as a magician. Clarence slowly mesmerises the boy out of his obsession with death and into engaging with the real world. Through the occasional magic trick. It is a lovely, sweet friendship, that meanders into an unexpectedly reciprocal one as Clarence’s mind starts to mess with him. This culminates in a couple of wounding scenes: one with a faintly Gallic magic trick that is wrecked by sudden forgetfulness, and another, nearly catastrophic one triggered by a much deeper, darker loss of memory. And there’s the heart of this film: there is somebody there, in front of you already. So take their hand.
The performances are bang on. Bill Milner gives young Edward proper range: he is sullen, sad, angry and demonstrative. And he uses silence and quiet observation to convey a boy trying to understand a man at the end of his days. Wow, have I seen that look in these corridors. And oh for the skill of Caine, reacting with honesty and depth to the boy and the stresses of falling apart. He wanders post offices, streets, schools and the nursing home in a long-coat and Astrakhan hat, giving it a touch of the time-travelling William Hartnell, whilst being the old magician. Caine’s Clarence is open wound of emotions, not a bundle of over-wrought dramatic tricks. Both actors, young and old, do terrific jobs.
That said, there are no twists or turns to startle you. And given I was slipping under the water at the end, half certain some kid was recording my last breath, a jump or two would have been welcome.
Is Anybody There? is a warm, honest, imperfect film. Caine demonstrates why he stays a star into his senior years. And, yes, old Jack wants to be like him for all his disintegrating dignity. You will like the film if you’re not in a home, but it may make you fear them. Not for what these places have to offer, but for the various ways life route-marches you to the end.
Rage, rage…on iTunes, DVD and Amazon. It’ll cost.