- The Washington Times - Friday, May 1, 2009

Ten-year-old Edward, like any boy his age, has a few questions he’d like answered. Will his parents’ troubled marriage survive? Is there life after death? “Can I have my room back now that Arthur’s dead?”

The dark but touching comedy “Is Anybody There?” is set in a British seaside town in the 1980s.

Edward’s (Bill Milner) parents (Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey) have fallen on tough times and have turned the family home into a retirement home. The boy hates the new arrangement. Besides losing his bedroom, he has to hand the remote control over to the paying customers.

Those customers — played by some of Britain’s finest character actors — inspire a morbid obsession in young Edward. He wants to know what happens to these eccentrics once they’ve crossed over to the other side, and he plants a tape recorder in the rooms of the dying in the hopes of gleaning evidence of a ghostly presence after death.

He doesn’t really get to know any of them while they’re alive, until Clarence (Michael Caine) arrives. The old man isn’t ready to give up his freedom just yet. As he points out, “You live on your own all your life, and then they think it’s a good idea to stuff you in with a bunch of strangers.” Clarence once was known as the Amazing Clarence, and the gruff magician soon wins Edward’s admiration as the two — one at the beginning of his life, one at end — embark on a complicated friendship.

“Is Anybody There?” is one of those slightly outrageous but ultimately moving comedies the British do so well. Peter Harness’ script, reportedly autobiographical, has a lot of laugh-out-loud jokes that also contain pathos. Clarence’s approaching dementia, for example, becomes clearer when a show he puts on for Edward’s birthday goes horribly and hilariously awry. John Crowley, who directed the gems “Intermission” and “Boy A,” shows it all with a grave attention to the important details of early and late life.

The film feels particularly well made, though, because of the quality of the acting. The retirees are all small roles, but each is played by an incredible talent — Rosemary Harris, Leslie Phillips, Sylvia Sims, Peter Vaughan, Ralph Riach and the late Elizabeth Spriggs in her final screen appearance. The young Bill Milner is as charming and natural here as he was in “Son of Rambow.”

The film belongs, of course, to the masterful Mr. Caine. He brings a lifetime of experience moving us to do so once again as a regretful man who feels crushed under the weight of a lifetime of experience.

★★★

TITLE: “Is Anybody There?”

RATING: PG-13 (Language, including sexual references, and some disturbing images)

CREDITS: Directed by John Crowley. Written by Peter Harness.

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes

WEB SITE: isanybodytheremovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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