Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
Film Length: 94 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: VC-1
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 25GB
Theatrical Release Date: May 1, 2009
Blu-ray Release Date: Nov. 17, 2009
Is Anybody There? offers the unique experience of two actors with an age difference of 62 years operating in perfect sync to drain all of the sentimentality out of a story that, in other hands, might have drowned in it. The result is a film that slyly slips into deep places where tough truths about growing up and aging and anticipation and regret can be whispered – but very softly. The actors in question are two-time Oscar winner Michael Caine and Bill Milner, the remarkable child actor from Son of Rambow.
It’s 1985, and young Edward (Milner) lives in a small town in the south of England with his Mum (Anne-Marie Duff; Notes on a Scandal and the forthcoming The Last Station) and Dad (David Morrissey; The Reaping and Basic Instinct 2, but you won’t recognize him). Edward does not like what has happened to his home. His parents have turned the house into a retirement residence, and Edward has had to give up his room, because it’s more valuable to the family when it houses an additional tenant. Edward despises living among the various stroke victims, palsy sufferers and worn-out pensioners that surround him day and night, and he’s less than thrilled at the toll the daily grind is taking on his parents. The business is struggling, and while Mum tries to put on a cheery front, Dad is suffering a midlife crisis with a wandering eye that has settled on their young assistant Tanya (Linzey Cocker).
Edward distracts himself with a hobby, which is the spirit world. He’s obsessed with capturing a ghost on film or tape, and since clients of his parents’ business regularly expire, he routinely has opportunities. His dream is to record the spirit of a dying person as it exits the body. So far, though, he’s been unsuccessful.
One day Edward “meets” Clarence (Caine), a retiree who has been referred by social services to his parents’ retirement home. (The word “meets” is in quotation marks, because it’s more a collision than a meeting.) Clarence is a cantankerous piece of work: angry, disheveled, resentful of others’ intrusion into his life, desiring only to be left alone. He does, however, drive an old van that says “The Amazing Clarence!” in faded red lettering, and the back of the van is full of posters and playbills from an earlier era of show business. In a former life, Clarence was a magician.
It would be inaccurate to say that Edward and Clarence strike up a friendship. It’s more like a partnership between outcasts. Clarence wants nothing to do with his fellow residents, while Edward is mocked at school for his fascination with the occult and the “weird” circumstances of his home life. (It also turns out that he doesn’t like “football” a/k/a soccer, which automatically makes him an outcast in England.) But as partnerships go, this is a strange sort in which the partners can’t possibly fulfill each other’s needs. Edward wants Clarence to help him study the occult, because magicians are supposed to know about these things. Clarence has come to the bitter conclusion that he’s seen all there is to life, that “eing a person is a pain in the ass”, and that the main experience of living is accumulating regrets that “stick to you like old bruises”. The only thing that engages his interest, even briefly, is getting Edward out of his shell so that the kid will go off and do something besides looking for ghosts and bothering old people.
To this end, Clarence teaches Edward a few simple magic tricks and offers to perform for a group of schoolmates at a birthday party. Edward uses these lures to entice kids to his home, where they otherwise would never set foot. The party is a smashing success until near the end of Clarence’s performance when . . . well, you’ll have to see the film, but the mishap does have a darkly comic edge to it.
The problem is that Clarence is never entirely present. He is consumed with grief for the loss of his beloved wife, Annie, who used to be his magician’s assistant and whose pictures are everywhere: in his van, in his room, in his pockets. (Not surprisingly, there is more to the story of Annie’s loss, and it emerges late in the film.) He is also suffering from the ravages of old age, and although the word “Alzheimer’s” is never mentioned, the symptoms are unmistakable: minor at first, then progressively more severe.
Just when you’re afraid the whole affair may take a sentimental turn, something remarkable happens: Clarence succeeds in his effort to draw Edward out of his shell, but he does it in a way he never intended and without even realizing what he’s done. He even manages to provide the kid with the elusive object of his quest, an experience of the spirit leaving the body, though not in any way that Edward ever imagined (it’s a subtle moment, but there’s a look of wonder on Edward’s face). And Edward is the catalyst for giving Clarence something that he has needed desperately for a long time. It may not be perfect, but it’s more than Clarence ever expected to find.
To ensure that the story keeps its edge, screenwriter Peter Harness and director John Crowley (whose credits include the tough-minded social drama Boy A) surround Clarence and Edward with various darkly comic subplots, many of them involving the elderly residents at Edward’s home. Take Lilian (Sylvia Syms), who lights up with smiles when told that her daughter is on the phone from Canada; then she picks up the receiver and immediately begins balling out her daughter in the most vicious tone imaginable. From there Lilian’s story only gets darker. The great Rosemary Harris (still best known as Peter Parker’s Aunt May, but also one of the finest living theater actresses) plays Elsie, a former dancer who now only has one leg but is determined to get another resident, Reg, to dance with her (Reg is played by Leslie Phillips, who co-starred in Venus with Peter O’Toole). When Reg finally gives in, Elsie takes over his life. Harris is so good that she can convey the sense of a complete character with just a few lines and few minutes of screen time.
And then, of course, there’s the ongoing drama of Edward’s pathetic Dad, whose mullet gets ever more ridiculous as he futilely tries to impress Tanya, who doesn’t want to know. Eventually, Mum finds out, and the marriage blows up, but by this point Edward is so disgruntled with his living circumstances that it’s not clear how much he cares.
Bill Milner’s Edward is not your usual child lead. He makes no easy attempt to win the audience’s sympathy. His Edward is bratty, rebellious and obnoxious. He thinks nothing of throwing a clod of dirt at an old man’s head or knocking over a slice of birthday cake offered to him by his father. Indeed, the likely reason why Clarence warms to Edward at all is because Clarence recognizes that Edward has fast-forwarded to the insight that Clarence took a lifetime to reach – namely, that the world sucks.
And Caine is a marvel. As Clarence, he gives a performance of zero vanity: unshaven, unkempt, staggering and grimacing under the weight of years and sadness. If not for the vague outline of the familiar features that once were those of Alfie and Harry Palmer and Carter, you might think that this was a homeless person who stumbled into the frame by accident. Caine remains one of the most natural screen actors alive, and since you never catch him acting, Clarence’s abrupt shifts of mood are just as startling to us as they must be to young Edward.
Harness’ script cheats a bit toward the very end by adding a tiny bit of fairy tale magic, but the sin is forgivable. Everything that’s preceded the end has been so tart, tough and real that a small note of grace can be allowed. Not many films would have the courage to present old age with so little sentiment. Not many movie stars would have the skill to play it and make it work.
Unlike a number of Magnolia titles I’ve reviewed recently, this is one I saw theatrically. The Blu-ray image is an excellent reproduction of the theatrical presentation, with its muted tones and overcast skies. Still, the occasional burst of color, as in some of the favors at Edward’s party, let you know that this is an accurately balanced color scheme, and the detail is always excellent, even when it’s too close for comfort. (The close-ups on Michael Caine’s face show every line and every bit of stubble.) Indoor scenes are dimly lit, sometimes in the extreme, but the image always shows the essential elements of the scene, and this is how it looked it in the theater. Grain structure appears to be intact, and I saw no evidence of DNR, digital manipulation or compression artifacts.
The DTS lossless track is solid and serviceable, giving priority to the dialogue, as it should, and using the surrounds for a subtle sense of ambiance. Occasionally, there are pronounced rear channel effects such as traffic passing, but these are the exception. Dialogue is generally clear and well-rendered, but American listeners should be warned that the accents are unusually thick. Fortunately, the English subtitles are detailed and accurate (and I know this because I had to consult them a few times, which is unusual for me, but Caine mutters the occasional line in a kind of throwaway gesture where the tone is more important than the words). Jody Talbot, who also scored Son of Rambow, has written a delicate score that avoids easy tugs at the heart strings, and it’s both well integrated into the mix and well-presented on the Blu-ray.
Deleted Scenes (7:06) (SD res.). There are five scenes. All of them are interesting, but they were probably cut for pacing or because they weren’t necessary to the story. There is one especially lovely scene between Clarence and Edward’s Mum that gives you a glimpse of the irresistible charmer that Clarence once was. He really could have been Alfie.
Trailers. At startup the disc plays trailers for The Answer Man, Food, Inc., World’s Greatest Dad, and HDNet. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button, and the trailers for the films are separately available under Special Features.
BD-Live. Although the features menu contains an entry for BD-Live, it appears that Magnolia has yet to make any content available.
Not everyone likes this sort of character-driven drama, but for those who do Is Anybody There? is essential viewing. You will not find a better-made film about the anticipation and the regret that bookend a person’s life, the one or the other exerting greater pressure depending on which end of the stack you’re nearest.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub