Movie Review: Is Anybody There?

anyone there

Picture the scene: Michael Caine comes striding out of a screening of Venus, the 2007 movie that earned Peter O’Toole an Oscar nomination for his touching performance as an older English gent living it up at the end of his life. Caine heads straight to the office of his agent, thumps his fist on the desk and snarls “I want me some of that! Find me a Venus that I can make my own!”. 

Okay, this is probably not what has led to Is Anybody There? landing in cinemas this month, but the strong similarities with Venus are hard to ignore and this new film suffers a great deal by comparison.

It’s the 1980s in a drab English seaside town. Ten year old Edward lives with his parents in the struggling retirement home they run together. Quiet and insular, Edward is obsessed with the supernatural, in particular the afterlife, and he constantly listens to tape-recordings he has made of dead or dying residents, desperately hoping to find some clue as to what awaits us after we die.

The newest resident is Clarence (Caine), a crusty old widower and retired magician who doesn’t want to be there. Clarence and Edward initially antagonise one another, but following a suicide attempt by Clarence, the two develop a burgeoning friendship which leads to a series of life-lessons for the young boy, a bit of tutoring in the art of magic tricks and – oh, yes! – a gradual softening of the older gent’s flinty heart.

Yes, we’re veering perilously close to cliché territory in this faintly queasy mash-up of numerous odd-couple scenarios that have been done much better before.

The performances are variable. Edward is played very cutely by Bill Milner, but is an exact carbon copy of the character we saw from him in last year’s Son of Rambow – downtrodden, sad-eyed, earnest, hopeful. His father, played by David Morrissey, is an unremarkable performance bar a mullet and some terrifying 80s clothes. And an extremely likeable Anne-Marie Duff (from TV’s Shameless) easily outshines the rest of the cast in all of her scenes as Edward’s mother.

The residents of the home are played by a veritable who’s-who of elderly English actors, sadly reduced to serving up their best loveable-but-batty shtick in the pursuit of some weak jokes. This is the kind of film where we are expected to laugh because the oldies say ‘fuck’, or because the one with the plastic leg keeps asking the gents to dance.

But what of the presumed main draw, Mr Michael Caine? Once again, he does a good job of playing Michael Caine (only this time with white hair and watery eyes). Honestly, is there a more over-rated actor in the history of cinema? Sure, his was an iconic face back in the day and we see various pictures of Clarence in his youth which confirm this. Yep, Caine was indeed a hottie back in the Sixties. But it seems he has turned into one of those actors who now gets applause just for showing up. Personally, I think he is only ever as strong as the material he is working with and what we are faced with here amounts to a flat performance in a pretty dreary little film.

On the plus side, there are some nice moments. The interplay between Edward and Clarence is at times pleasingly awkward and touching. And there is a smashing scene at a birthday party where Clarence performs a series of tricks for an eager audience and we get a glimpse of the real sparkle that presumably once fired up this grumpy old man.

As the film progresses and Clarence’s senility comes to the fore, the screenplay doesn’t pull any punches and there are some surprisingly offbeat scenes, especially a brief back-seat kiss between two of the characters which is sweet and plausible and very sad.

Production design is good and the cinematographer conjures up the right sort of grainy seediness. This is a world of greys and browns where people and buildings are all in a similar state of disrepair.

But is it worth ninety minutes of your time and fifteen bucks? I can see that this will pull in the Sunday afternoon punters down at Opera Quays, and at the screening I attended people chuckled in all the right places. It is pleasant enough and relatively engaging for much of its duration. But it ultimately seems too small for the big screen, like we’re watching a drab little TV drama that has accidentally found its way into a movie theatre. In the end, this is not a bad picture, just a very ordinary one.

Reviewed by The All Knowing I


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2 Responses to “Movie Review: Is Anybody There?”

  1. Peter Says:

    I really liked this film – especially the bus heading to Hull! I also thought Leslie Phillips was marvellous just as he was, ironically, in ‘Venus’!

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