John Crowley | 91 mins | TV (HD) | 12 / PG-13
Is Anybody There? has been described as “lightweight” in some reviews. Tosh and piffle — I don’t think that’s true in the slightest, and it’s left this rather excellent film to be distinctly underrated.
Far from being “lightweight”, it’s a subtle tale that covers a lot of ground in an unshowy way. Aside from the main plot, which is very worthwhile in itself — about how a lonely, slightly odd 10-year-old boy and a lonely, stubborn old man accidentally wind up bringing out the best in each other and helping each other to move on from the troubles they’re stuck in — the supporting characters are used to paint succinct pictures of old age, abandonment and regret.
And so it’s actually about a lot of things: primarily loneliness, in all its forms, from a boy who can’t get on at school and is half ignored by his parents, to a strained marriage, to abandonment at old age; but it’s also about regret, for missed opportunities and for not setting things right; and that particular point in childhood when you’re obsessed with death and what lies beyond; and hope for the future, even when there’s not much future to be hopeful about; and how there’s happiness to be found even when it seems it’s too late for any. And it’s about all of these things in a much better way than it might sound — I’m hitting them on the nose here, something the film never does.
The cast are excellent, particularly the central pairing of Michael Caine and Bill Milner. Both give excellent, nuanced performances, and it’s credit to not only their skills but also those of writer Peter Harness and director John Crowley that the initially antagonistic relationship merges seamlessly into a deep friendship and respect; one that doesn’t go unchallenged, but survives it all to make them both better people.
Milner captures perfectly that almost-teenage state of naivety-and-knowledge; of extreme stomping anger and beautiful helpfulness, each just a flip of the coin away from the other; where a blazing row is followed by everything being fine just seconds later. And Caine, at the other end of life, is almost the same, in the way that youth and old age always seem to align so perfectly. He starts off grumpy and unappeasable, but places himself willingly into a grandfather-like role, teaching Milner the wonders of magic and trying to bring him out of his shell, to find friends his own age, to move on with his death-obsession, to not let his life disappear into regret; and, at the same time, coping with his own heavy burdens of a life thrown away, that unique type of regret when it’s far too late to ever possibly put it right.
While it is clearly Milner and Caine’s film, that doesn’t mean the supporting cast can’t excel also. In particular, Anne-Marie Duff as the snowed-under mother and manager, with her heart in the right place but a family life that’s severely suffering because of it, something she doesn’t even notice until it’s (almost) too late. It’s Duff, David Morrissey, and the rest of the elderly main cast, who round out the film’s themes with subplots and vignettes conveyed through understated, often dialogue-light/free, scenes and performances.
If this all sounds heavy going… well, some of it is, relatively, but there’s also plenty of comedy — much of it quite dark, true — to lighten the mood. It’s a well-balanced film that hits that genuinely realistic note: life is rarely all comedy or all tragedy, and more often than not the most hilarious moments are locked up inside the most unbearable. It’s a truth a few more drama writers could productively learn, instead of remaining so insufferably po-faced because they’re creating a Serious And Meaningful Dramatic Work.
Is Anybody There? seems to garner middling reviews most places, which I think is massively unfair. Perhaps it didn’t speak to those reviewers, for whatever reason, but it did to me and the person I watched it with. Perhaps if you’ve ever been that child who wondered and worried about what comes after death, or struggled to find your place in the world, or become stuck in a situation where you feel you may as just give up, or known people who’ve been abandoned as they grew old, or who have suffered that horrible, sometimes slow, sometimes all too fast, loss of their mental faculties, then this film will engage you too. It is, in three words, excellent, underrated, and affecting.
Is Anybody There? placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2010, which can be read in full here.