Is Anybody There?
Directed by John Crowley
screenplay by Peter Harness

The new film from director John Crowley from a screenplay by Peter Harness, is a well-made minor film, distinguished by a fine performance by Michale Caine and an interesting premise, but undermined by a script that takes itself a bit too seriously and ends up drifting into slightly maudlin melodrama.

It doesn't help that the main plot device - the growing relationship between a crusty senior citizen and a young child - has been used before (in significantly better films including Peter Sellers wonderful turn in The Optimists). It's a difficult story to tell without falling into the easily available sentimentality and mawkishness, and Harness - a relative novice whose other writing experience is in television - isn't equal to the task.

The story concerns retired magician, The Amazing Clarence (Michael Caine), at the end of his career of traveling around England in his "caravan" motorhome, who is obviously aware that he is beginning to lose his ability to function on his own. He comes to an eccentric "retirement home" near the English seaside run by a struggling family, for whom it also their home.

It becomes obvious fairly quickly that Clarence is in trouble - much more trouble than he is willing to admit. It also becomes clear that the family that runs the retirement home - Mum, Dad and ten-year-old Edward - are in some trouble themselves. It's the way these troubles intersect and play themselves out that forms the body of the story.

Clarence is deeply sunk in his own misery - the failures of his past life, the difficulties of the present, and the fear of future prospects that seem increasingly disturbing. He has isolated himself in his pain and fear, which has the effect of magnifying his unhappiness.

Meanwhile, Edward (Bill Milner) is similarly isolating himself. Unhappy at school. vaguely but miserably aware of the slow breakdown of his parent's relationship, surrounded - and moved out of his own room - by old people who behave erratically and frequently die, Edward is a lonely pre-adolescent outsider.

His loneliness and the unusual circumstances in which he lives have led him into a preoccupation with death and dying. He reads books and magazine articles about paranormal research into the spirits of the dead and tries to copy experiments to prove their reality. He hides a tape-recorder in the rooms of dying residents in hopes of learning something about their transition from living to death.

The "odd couple" relationship that develops between the misanthropic elderly man and the vulnerable boy is the dramatic core of the film. Initially annoyed and irritated by the boy, Clarence slowly warms to him and sympathizes with his unhappiness. To try to draw him out of his isolation and distract him from his fascination with death, Clarence introduces him to the world of magic, teaching him some tricks and introducing him to some of the history of Clarence's own career.

At the outset, Edward is cowed by Clarence's hostility, but he gradually comes to understand the old man's irritability as a function of his sadness and fear, and undertakes his own program to try to help Clarence. Through these interactions the man and the boy see themselves reflected in one another and their attempts to heal each other become ways in which they heal themselves.

As I said, it's a charming and touching premise, which is why it has been developed before. The problem here is that Harness isn't able to maintain the emotional distance from the material (the story is reportedly based on autobiographical material) that would be required to make the story work. Without that, at several moments, it descends into a kind of ham-fisted sentimentality that rides roughshod over the delicate relationship Caine and Milner have created.

The film seeks to raise many difficult and persistent issues - particularly those that revolve around life and loss. How do we handle the transitory nature of our lives and relationships? How do we face our own mortality, the loss of our identity with which both senility and death threaten us? How do we seek to make sense of our lives, in looking backwards from old age, in looking forward from childhood, and in looking around - as Edward's parent do - in middle-age?

It's certainly material for an exploration that has made any number of great films, and it might have made one here if Harness had been willing to be a little less safe and prosaic. The script tries to tie up all the loose ends and somehow "resolve" away the pain that is an unavoidable part of living and loving. Of course it can't do so in any believable way, so the result feels contrived and manipulative.

Director Crowley, on the other hand, seems to be doing his job. The way the film is put together technically and the performances the actors give testify to Crowley's ability - despite a resume that is grounded in televison and has only one prior feature film credit. He and cinematographer Rob Hardy have given the film a very smooth look, especially considering the low budget.

But the strongest feature of the film is its cast and especially Michael Caine. Given the flaws in the script, in lesser hands things could have gone really badly. In large measure it's Caine's remarkable restraint and brave choices that keep Clarence from falling into the stereotype of the crusty old man with the heart of gold and makes Harness's story interesting and appealing in spite of its flaws.

Caine manages to make Clarence sympathetic without making him likeable. When we find out about his philandering past and its consequences in his life, we can still feel sympathy with his predicament, even as we realize that to a great extent his wounds are self-inflicted. Caine creates a poignant portrait of an ordinary man whose painful circumstances and the transitory nature of whose life provide a valuable lesson for those around him. It's actually Edward and his family who are the center of the story here and Caine avoids letting Clarence's problems and personality overshadow theirs.

Bill Milner, who was vastly-appealing as the good-hearted nŠif - almost a sort of "holy fool" - in Son of Rambow brings Edward to life with many of the same traits - of innocence, of curiosity, of emotional openness and vulnerability. He's effective here, and like Caine, doesn't overplay the feelings - although the script seems to be steering in that direction.

Anne-Marie Duff and William Morrisey, as Edward's Mum and Dad are both under-written and underplayed. Given that the tension in their relationship is one of the forces driving Edward, we aren't given enough to go on to know how deep and serious the rift between them is, so it makes their later moves toward reconciliation seem less dramatic and more "crafted" for story-development purposes. They don't have a lot to work with, and unfortunately they don't find a way to do more than is written with what they are given.

The ensemble cast who play the old people in the retirement home do a better job. This kind of "eccentric ensemble" cast is a hallmark of many of the best British films (and novels, too, going back at least to Dickens). The group of more-and-less dotty oldsters add a great deal of texture to the film through introducing the details of their particular stories. There's the former ballroom dancer who has a wooden leg, the veteran who has an uncontrollable palsy, the energetic granny living happily and completely in a world of her own. It's easy to understand why Edward would find them and their various conditions both fascinating and frightening.

The production values are well-balanced for the kind of small film this is. There's nothing flashy or jaw-dropping - and absolutely no CGI or special effects, which is in many ways a relief.The sets, costumes and locations are modest but suitably distinguished, especially Clarence's and Edward's attic bedrooms with what seems like just the right amount of visual detail.

Is Anybody There is a reasonably well-made film. Without the fine work of Caine and Milner, it might have been cloying and unwatchable, but as it stands, it is an interesting and often moving film that paints a provocative contrast between a man at the end of his life and boy at the beginning of his, both trying to make meaning out of the events through which they pass. It has a number of fine moments and the theme, if not satisfyingly dealt with in the film, at least leaves viewers with food for thought.

That's my take on it. What's yours?