Somewhere on the dreary northeast coast of England, sometime during the dreary Margaret Thatcher years, a married couple (Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey) struggle while running a low-rent old folks’ home. Their 10-year-old son Edward (Bill Milner) — trapped in a house filled with the wrinkled, the palsied and the dying — develops a fixation with death and ghosts.
Into this atmosphere of decay bursts Michael Caine — a widower who’s depressed and angry, his glory days of leading a magic act as “The Amazing Clarence” long gone. Clarence isn’t happy about having to live in a place with “a lot of jabbering simpletons ... wetting themselves, and people you don’t know telling you what to do.”
Caine’s look in the opening scenes — unshaven, full of rage, facial features drooping into depression — becomes heart-piercing when Clarence finally, reluctantly, agrees to give up his independence and move into the rest home. “This is temporary,” he grumbles, clutching Duff’s hand ever more tightly. “This is only temporary.” But the tears in his eyes are witnesses to his defeat.
Some reviewers have called Peter Harness’ semi-autobiographical script sentimental, but it was good enough to attract a half-dozen great British actors just to play the bit parts of the elderly residents (one of whom, Elizabeth Spriggs, died soon after filming). Besides, in the end, Clarence’s happiness isn’t just temporary, it’s delusional: He doesn’t even know where he is or who’s his wife. Director John Crowley’s film doesn’t look away from the depredations of old age.
Despite some slender characterizations and Clarence’s too-abrupt transition from curmudgeon to pal, Is Anybody There? is a funny and moving film. There are wisecracks about corpses and magic tricks that go hilariously wrong; it’s filled with sadness and death, yes, but also with people’s resilience and rejuvenation.
There may not be anybody there speaking to us from the afterlife, as young Eddie hopes, but there’s certainly somebody here now — people who are facing midlife crises and sickness and even death. And still joking about it anyway.
Eddie comes to learn that the magic doesn’t only happen after we die. It’s been around us all the time. (Rated PG-13)