Death has rarely been considered with this mixture of Ealing whimsy and cold-eyed clarity.
"Rage against the dying of the light!" Michael Caine’s ageing magician Clarence predictably rails, finding himself washed up in a Yorkshire old people’s home in 1987. But in John Crowley’s unlikely follow-up to Boy A, his light fails anyway. Death has rarely been considered with this mixture of Ealing whimsy and cold-eyed clarity.
The only person as furious as Clarence at ending up in the optimistically named Lark House is Edward (Bill Milner), the 10-year-old whose parents (Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey) have filled their home with paying pensioners to survive Thatcherite hard times.
The distracted adults leave him a bullied misfit at school. Morbidly obsessed with ghosts, he trails his shuffling housemates with a tape-recorder, hoping to catch their last breaths. Clarence and Edward find common ground in their helpless presence among disparate old-timers they wouldn’t choose as company.
Writer Peter Harness has drawn heavily on his own childhood in a 1980s Yorkshire that Crowley emphatically reminds us had changed little since the shabby '70s. In lazier hands, his odd tale would be a pensioners' Cuckoo’s Nest, with Clarence the cathartic old rebel.
The foul-mouthed magician instead offers disgust at the indignity of decrepitude as his main life lesson. Innocence and experience then swap places as Edward leads him on a road trip to heal old hurts, and Clarence’s senile identity shatters like great shards of plate glass.
Is Anybody There? joins a list of sharp, independent British films Caine has made in a career third act as impressive in its way as his cockney class-warrior youth. As with Shiner, Last Orders and Little Voice (whose veteran showbiz faker Clarence benignly echoes), this is a film of messy last chances.
He leads an ensemble in which expert old-stagers Leslie Phillips, Sylvia Syms and Peter Vaughan show their own enduring humanity, as they’re abandoned to afternoons in a shared lounge with condescending council entertainers, and One Man and His Dog on TV.
Morrissey’s moustache, mullet and knackered lust for the home’s teenage help, meanwhile, is as selfless a supporting turn as Duff’s over-worked mum. But in the home strait where the film’s emotional payload waits, she makes the screen glow with a longing to love.
Is Anybody There? lets the thought that helpless infirmity is where we’re all headed sink in gently. Unassumingly wise, its jagged edges stick with you.
Sir Michael in a retirement home? Be still, oh pacemaker.
First and second childhoods are entertainingly compared, in a funny, surprising tale.
Takes life’s final, frightening stage in its stride. A modest treat.