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Movie review: IS ANYBODY THERE?

Michael Caine faces death in IS ANYBODY THERE?

Michael Caine faces death in IS ANYBODY THERE?

John Crowley’s Is Anybody There? really packs it in. Crowley and scripter Peter Harness have tried to amalgamate a lot of scenes that are serially, and sometimes almost simultaneously, intended to register vulgarly mordant humor, dreary Brit-kitsch kitchen sink drama, piercingly poignant human dilemmas and delicate philosophical insights. As might be expected, the filmmakers’ attempts to bundle all this together are sometimes awkward and arbitrary.

What’s surprising is how well they get away with it. The most important reasons are the performances of Michael Caine and young Bill Milner and their unexpectedly appealing and affecting teamwork. Caine’s performance might seem to be the vital force in this essentially slight and uneven film, and it is, but it is designed to work in tandem with Milner’s Edward. To the extent a point of view prevails in the picture, it’s the boy’s.

Caine’s Clarence is a used-up music-hall magician sent by social workers in 1987 to lodge at the seniors boarding house run by Edward’s parents (Anne Marie Duff and David Morrisey) near the English shore. Waspishly embittered and dismayed to find himself in this less than genteel, sometimes disturbing group setting, Clarence is ill-disposed to deal graciously with a ten-year-old boy who resents being displaced from his room, first by the lately deceased previous occupant and now by the old magician.

The resentful, largely isolated lad has reacted to the decay and disruption by obsessing on death, and apparitional “manafestations” (sic.), which he methodically tracks. No viewer is likely to be taken unawares by the bonding that eventually develops between these two, but the relationship is surprisingly amusing and involving.

Despite two supporting-actor Oscars and a knighthood, Caine is still an underrated asset. This little movie should serve to remind us, even if belatedly, of the deftly employed skills, judgment and spirit he can bring to a part. His underappreciated status (see, for example, David Thomson’s barely tolerant appraisal in his film dictionary) is partly Caine’s own fault. He’s never returned to the stage he left over half a century ago, and he’s accepted dozens of roles in unmemorable assembly-line projects.

And yet, he’s retained an ability to bring to bear skillfully inflected timing and to rise to meet the demands of emotional cadenzas. He can lend a semblance of worth to insubstantial material. His Clarence, this subprime Lear, is a genuinely impressive little artistic achievement.

And Caine has been generous and disciplined in his work with Milner. The famous admonition to actors not to work with dogs and children isn’t corroborated in this movie. Much of its halting, increasingly sententious progress toward its sweetly tragic resolution is admirably sustained by the youngster, alone and in collaboration with Caine. (Crowley must deserve some credit.)

If any one recent movie succeeds at least partly in spite of itself, Is Anybody There? is it.

—George Sax

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