Is Anybody There? (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Edward (Bill Milner) lives in a hospice run by his parents (Anne-Marie Duff, David Morrissey) and he’s just about had it because his room is given to a dying old man. When the gentleman died of natural causes, Edward has reason to be excited because it means he gets to have his room back, but Clarence (Michael Caine), a retired magician whose wife has recently passed away, arrives with his decrepit vehicle as he is assigned to live in their home by social services. Their situation isn’t helped by the fact that Edward and Clarence get off on the wrong foot.
The concept of a lonely young person meeting an elderly who unexpectedly changes his life isn’t particularly new, but the film, written by Peter Harness, has enough small oddities and deviations to allow a standard premise to shine in surprising ways.
Being able to hold one’s own against Caine is no easy feat and Milner does exactly that. While he is given an interesting character on paper, having a fascination with paranormal happenings and trying to communicate with the spirits of the deceased residents, he doesn’t rely on the his character’s idiosyncrasies to appear interesting. Instead, his characterization exudes a certain level of intelligence and maturity, coupled with a youthful zeal to want to be taken seriously, and so the inevitable changes that he goes through feel genuine.
The look of the picture reflects the many emotions that the characters force to mute. They almost seem cold to one another because they’re reluctant to say what scurries in their minds. The skies are always smudged with cumulonimbus clouds, the ground soaked by heavy night rain, and the close-up of faces, shot outdoors, have a blurry, dull-yellowish tint that it almost feels like we’re looking inside a memory. It gives the impression that although we see a person in front of us, a lot about them remains a mystery. Further, because of the picture’s purposefully gloomy ambiance, the small glimmers of hope and happiness that sprout coruscate that much more luminously.
What the script requires a bit of revision is the decaying relationship between Edward’s parents. Because both are very busy, some might say overworked, with the goings-on around the home, the husband and wife barely have the time and energy for one another. A much younger employee has gotten the attention of Edward’s father. The moment they share a flirtatious look, there’s nothing especially surprising about the way it turns out. Naturally, his wife has to find out eventually. I did like, however, how the fallout is handled. The filmmakers use the passage of time in a way that it lessens the bitterness and sweetness of what is broken which complements the material’s tone.
Written by Peter Harness and directed by John Crowley, “Is Anybody There?” may be small in scope but it takes advantage of its limitations by turning inwards and being selective of what it chooses to present as truth from the world of the elderly. With its intimate setting, we are given a chance to appreciate the nuances of the narrative.