by Susan Giffone [author, academic]
Times are tough. To make ends meet, a middle-aged couple decides to turn their house into an old age home. Their ten-year-old son Edward is displaced from his room, mum is overwhelmed with the day-to-day management of the business, and dad, it seems, is busy nursing bitterness and a low self-image. The boy seethes with resentment. As he witnesses the passing of several residents, he develops a fascination with death. Another family suffers the stress of the recent economic downturn.
Although Is Anybody There? takes place in 1984, in Hornsea, England, it manages to feel rather like 2009. Economic hardship, and its inevitable affect on marriages and families, is a classic tool for the screenwriter who wishes to explore human relationships and suggest means of rising above difficulties. Peter Harness, drawing from his own experience growing up in a retirement home, has written a neat little drama about life, love and loss. Early on, he introduces Clarence, an elderly retired magician, who has apparently lost his beloved wife and reluctantly consents to stay at Lark Hall, “just for the time being.”
Disney Studios would have taken this premise and cooked it up into a treacly pudding. In less capable hands, it could have become laughably macabre. Fortunately, director John Crowley navigates his way skillfully through Harness’s script and serves up a film which, if it does not give us the whole truth about the human condition, at least does not fall into the usual postmodern despair or New Age preachiness.
Edward (Bill Milner from Son of Rambow) is not a cuddly, big-eyed waif or a mischievous imp. He is a real young person with serious questions about life and death. He wants to know if there are such things as ghosts, and if you can talk to people after they die. He hides a tape recorder in the residents’ rooms in hopes of capturing the sounds of transition between life and death. He studies these recordings, even listening to them as he walks to and from school.
Neither is Clarence (Sir Michael Caine) the wise, twinkly-eyed grandpa figure. He is annoyed by Edward, appalled by the other residents, and he makes it clear that he wishes only to be left alone. His initial clashes with the boy are entirely negative, and only funny because they are so much like real life. Anyone who’s ever been a kid knows that cranky old people are, deep down inside, really just cranky old people.
But soon Edward, and we, begin to understand that irascible old Clarence has good reasons for being cranky. And that his problems are not those which can be neatly solved with a few doses of humor and an epiphany about Life. No, Clarence is a deeply flawed person, with real guilt that cannot be expunged. He tells Edward, “You accumulate regrets, and they stick to you like old bruises.”
Edward and Clarence are not the only troubled people in the house. All of the half dozen or so elderly residents at Lark Hall are in various stages of decay: a veteran who can’t stop twitching; an old lady who tears up toilet paper and pops packing bubbles; another who brags about her daughter and then excoriates her on the phone; a former dancer who has lost a leg; a man who quietly drinks himself to sleep every night. Another resident has apparently had a stroke, and, while physically recovered, can only repeat the phrase, “One out.” Every person in this movie is broken in some way. Edward’s father (the versatile David Morrissey) is pathetic as he desperately pines after the young hired girl and hopes to impress her with his new clothes and modern haircut. Only Edward’s mum (the brilliant Anne-Marie Duff) seems to have a fund of strength and energy to impel everyone else forward each day, and we fear that this, like the money in the petty cash box, is running dangerously low.
Producers Peter Sharaf and Marc Turtletaub have managed to pull together an impressive assemblage of talent to fill Lark Hall, including Rosemary Harris (the Spider-Man franchise), Peter Vaughan (The Remains of the Day) and Elizabeth Spriggs (Sense and Sensibility). Together, they convey a sense of collective fragility.
Edward, like all children, is sure his problems are more serious than anyone else’s. When he discovers a resident attempting to commit suicide, he quickly realizes that being displaced from one’s room and surrounded by loopy old people is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. Clumsily, he seeks to befriend Clarence. Clarence, in turn, softens toward the boy. He begins to see that Edward’s fixation with death is unhealthy, and tries to get him to interact more with his schoolmates. Toward this end he teaches him some magic tricks. He encourages Edward to have a birthday party. “Join hands and make contact with the living, son,” he urges.
The film could have ended satisfactorily, if predictably, at this point, and no one would have thought much of it. But Harness wants to go deeper. He shows us, through Edward’s young eyes, that all is not as it at first appears. Edward, the boy who listened to hours of tape recordings hoping for clues to the afterlife, begins to pay attention to the live people around him. It is by watching them intently that Edward sees that life is to be experienced, not in self-absorption or isolation, but in connection with other broken people, fully and dangerously. Clarence, the magician, had delighted his audiences with sleight of hand. As we watch Edward watching the people around him, we see that while we may be able to fool those in the audience, it is those whom we allow into the backstage areas of our lives who know our tricks and can love us anyway. In taking the risk of being fully known, we can finally receive forgiveness and peace.
Is Anybody There? succeeds for many reasons, but mostly because it tells the truth. People really are broken. Physically, no matter how hard we resist, we eventually break down and die. Emotionally, we are incomplete. Spiritually, we really do need to be forgiven. In these times of economic uncertainty, it’s nice to be reminded that there are some things that can’t be bought, only received.
Is Anybody There? opens April 17, 2009.
Susan Giffone is a staff writer for MovieMinistry.com, and is based in the New York City area.