Over 100 films to his credit. Six Oscar nominations. Two Best Supporting Actor Oscars in hand. Eight BAFTA nominations with one Best Actor award. Twelve Golden Globe nominations. Three Globes as Best Actor. A knighthood. And that’s just a smattering of the accolades showered on Michael Caine over the past five decades. So, one now must ask what could possibly be left for a man of his talent and caliber to achieve at the tender age of 76. According to Michael Caine himself, there is one goal he still has, “I guess it would be to win an Oscar for Best Actor. I’ve never done that.” Enter screenwriter Peter Harness who, with this first feature film, IS ANYBODY THERE?, brought Michael Caine to tears just reading the script and gives Sir Michael a role that may just garner him that elusive Best Actor Academy Award.
Edward is a precocious 10 year old whose once joyous and fun-filled home known as Lark Hall, has been turned into a nursing home by his parents. Now filled with the elderly, the infirm and the senile, Edward has even lost his own room and is relegated to the attic. Not that the residents aren’t an interesting lot if Edward would only take the time to get to know them. Edna is funny but a bit off kilter, Bob is a WWI vet who suffers from a permanent Parkinsonsian twitching, Elsie is pretty much afraid of her own shadow and Reg is a self-perceived ladies man whose penchant for dirty jokes causes more embarrassment to everyone that he does. And they are all old with some infirmity and are in Edward’s house waiting for the end to come. Surrounded by the smell of old age and death, it’s only natural that Edward would become obsessed with death and ghosts and the hereafter and obsessed he is. Hiding tape recorders in the rooms of the residents or putting microphones under their noses at night hoping to capture those last fleeting moments of life or to hear what it sounds like when someone dies, Edward doesn’t know what it means to be a little boy and have fun and be the center of attention. His father is obsessed with the aide that comes in daily to help with the residents. His mother is obsessed with the residents and takes her job as caretaker with great seriousness and care.
But life takes on a new perspective when Clarence Parkinson arrives. Once known as “The Amazing Clarence”, he is now a crotchety, cranky, acerbic old man who is placed at Lark Hall by Social Services. While he arrives under his own steam in a ratty looking kaleidoscopic camper, himself appearing rather unkempt and flustered, on opening his mouth he is anything but which makes one wonder why he is being placed at Lark Hall. Clarence has a wit, and a wise one at that. But he doesn’t take kindly too nosy little boys; and one in particular who is rather disgruntled at Clarence’s arrival because now he knows he will never get his old room back. But something magical happens. Clarence sees something in Edward no one else dares see – a little lost soul adrift and looking for love and attention. And Edward sees a man with a fascinating past life filled with adventure, who now seems intent to shut the door on that past life and keep it shut. But with a nosey little boy around, that’s not very likely to happen – is it?
As the days and weeks pass, Clarence and Edward become inseparable. Clarence determines to shed Edward of his obsession with death and Edward determines to bring back The Amazing Clarence. And all the while, a magic all its own is happening to them both.
This is Michael Caine’s Best Actor Oscar performance. As Clarence, he captures the curmudgeonly, acerbic, crustiness of a man nearing the end of his life, a man filled with regrets but realizing it may be too late to right his past wrongs, but a man that is still full of love and wisdom to give and is looking to be loved and needed and not put out to pasture. For Caine, “I loved doing this. I fell in love with the script. David Hayward, who brought the script to me. . gave it to me and I was reading it and I got halfway through and I rang him and I said, I’ll do it. He said, Did you like it? I said I haven’t finished it yet. He said, well, why are you calling me before you are finished. I said, because I’m crying and I wanted something to do. It made me cry halfway through. No script had ever done that to me before. I don’t cry easily. I just thought it was a wonderful thing to do and it stretches me. When you’ve been an actor as long as I have, you’re trying to get better, better, better. The only reason to go to work really – is to try and prove to yourself that you’re better than you were the last time.” As Clarence he is better than in almost any role in his storied career. One would think with all of Caine’s experience, that acting would be a walk in the park for him, but it’s not. Here, he had to master the art of magic. And as he told me, it was “quite difficult, especially when you’re my age. I’ve got fingers that don’t’ work quite so well. Billy [Milner] got that one quicker than I did. It’s quite difficult to do [card tricks].” Caine also believes in calling on life’s experiences to help you formulate your character and here was no different. He calls on the technical knowledge necessary to perfect a performance from watching his friends who may be afflicted with a disease or living the experience with them.
As for the casting of Edward, unknown Bill Milner got the nod over 75 other actors. Although Caine didn’t have a say so in casting Edward, he did point out to producer David Heyman, “ if the little boy is no good, we’re in trouble. And then he brought Bill in. And Bill was fabulous. Bill wasn’t from a stage school. He hadn’t done any professional acting before. He was from an amateur dramatic society and most important of all, he didn’t have a Stage Mum.” He had a very nice, very sweet mother. He’s just a very natural little boy and I thought he was wonderful.” Milner is perfect as the impish 10 year old. Described by Caine as “so skilled and so natural”, Milner has a childlike enthusiasm that fills the character but he exudes a wisdom beyond his years. However, it’s his rapore with Caine that fills your heart everytime you see them on screen. The two are like a grandfather and grandson – one imparting wisdom and one soaking it up like a sponge; one being a child and learning to be an adult and one remembering what it’s like to be a child. Watching Milner and Caine is a priceless experience. According to Caine, who likes to “work with the best possible actors because it pushes me on. With Bill, I never got the sense that Bill was a little child actor. I just looked at Bill as someone who was just the same as me. We were just friends. We were very good friends.” And Caine never gave him any advice. “He didn’t need any. He didn’t look like he needed any. He was just wonderful. I thank God every day that he [Bill] was there.”
Screenwriter Peter Harness is an undiscovered treasure. Named in 2007 as one of the “Stars of Tomorrow” by The Times and Screen International, one look at IS ANYBODY THERE?, and you won’t wonder why the title was bestowed upon him. Drawing on his own experience growing up in a seniors home run by his parents in Hornsea, England, the characters are rich, vivid and textured; full of life. Told with the honesty of a child, Harness touches on various social issues such as the elderly, the right to die, death itself and most importantly, the human spirit among the generations. Heartfelt, poignant and dramatic, the icing on the cake is Crowley’s use of humor which is well placed, appropriate and well executed.
But it is the emotional impact of the story between Clarence and Edward that captures the heart and the senses as we see young Edward become a man and the elder statesman Clarence slowly fade away. According to Sir Michael, “I’m there to take care of [the boy]. And eventually he’s there to take care of me. And he learns from doing that.” With a silken ease, he brings his two central characters full circle, each displaying childlike wisdom and maturity; each starting at one end of the spectrum and moving either forward or backward but eventually meeting in the middle where the synergy between Clarence and Edward is of such intensity to bring you to tears with sad realizations about life. One of the most poignant scenes where the stars perfectly align in terms of writing, directing and acting is a day when Clarence picks Edward up from school. As Edward emerges into the schoolyard and sees Clarence, he breaks into a wide grin exploding with happiness while Clarence stands there beaming and on being asked by a parent, “Is that your grandson?” elicits a pause and smile that is both wistful and beautiful. It will bring tears to your eyes and is a perfect example of the Harness’ excellence with unspoken storytelling. He lets the visual descriptive tell the story which plays perfectly into the hands of John Crowley.
Director John Crowley mesmerized us with the his award wining film “Boy A” a couple of years ago. He displayed an innate sense of conveying powerful emotion through tacit lensing. Needless to say, given the nature of IS ANYBODY THERE?, his style and ability only compliments the already strong script and the narrative format. Described by Caine as a “brilliant young Irish director”, Crowley’s strength may come from his theatre background with an adept sense of storytelling, focusing on characters with a calm intensity. Contributing to the emotion of the film is cinematographer Rob Hardy who brings a warm softness to the pallette.
A perfect blend of love, poignancy, humor and drama, for Caine, he would like you to “take away a moving experience about life that [you] didn’t quite have before. About the relationships about children and adults and youngsters and the aging. It goes both ways. You see how an older person can help someone young. And you see how a younger person should treat an older person. That understanding between the two ages is very important in this picture.” And what a beautiful understanding it is that is brought to life by Michael Caine and Billy Milner. IS ANYBODY THERE? – They certainly are. This is pure Oscar gold in the shape of a heart.
Clarence – Sir Michael Caine
Edward – Bill Milner
Directed by John Crowley. Written by Peter Harness.