The opening scene of Is Anybody There? is a little too close for comfort. As the camera keeps tight on an old man’s (Karl Johnson) mouth, the only sound we hear is his breathing. And then we don’t. These are Mr. Arnold’s last breaths. And we feel intrusive, even a little inappropriate, in observing.
A few moments later, young Edward (Bill Milner) is listening to Mr. Arnold’s last breaths, but this time on a tape he secretly made, on a recorder he stashed under the deathbed. Like most 11-year-old boys, Edward’s curiosity knows no bounds, but less like his peers’, his is focused on death, or more specifically, what happens after.
Living with his parents in Lark Hall, a hospice home for the elderly, Edward is simultaneously thrilled by and resentful of his endless supply of “subjects.” He’s also frustrated that his collection of dying breath recordings has yielded no audible evidence for his “Journal of Paranormal Happenings.” Edward’s parents (Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrisey) wish he was less morbid and more inclined to see the residents as a precious trove of surrogate grandparents. Edward just wishes he could have his room back.
And then Clarence (Michael Caine) arrives at Lark Hall. We know right away that Edward will at last come to appreciate this old person “as a person,” and that this grumpy, slightly befuddled retired magician will soften, thanks to Edward’s youthful influence. In this, the film doesn’t offer up much that’s new. Still, Is Anybody There? provides an insightful and sensitive look at the pain of isolation and the connections between people, no matter their ages.
At one level, Clarence and Edward are isolated by choice. Clarence’s anger that he has ended up in assisted living at Lark Hall is matched by Edward’s (he never misses a chance to let everyone know how much he hates living there). But it’s soon apparent that, at another level, they feel alone because of outside factors: Clarence’s wife has died and he has become forgetful and confused, writing reminders to himself on his palms and forearms. For his part, Edward is bullied at school. They both see themselves as victims but more importantly, they see each other that way as well. It’s in this recognition that initiates their friendship, as Edward slips brochures on bereavement under Clarence’s door and Clarence teaches the boy magic tricks to up his cool factor at school.
The friendship yields predictable answers to the film’s titular question. The residents of Lark Hall are all cut off—some by distance from their families, others by physical disability, senility or illness. Edward’s mum and dad are cut off from each other by fatigue and competing priorities. When Clarence advises the child to forget the séances and instead “join hands and make contact with the living,” it’s applicable to all of them.
While Edward learns to reach out to others, he completely misses that his mother has been providing that example for him all along. Much will be said, rightly, of Caine’s and Milner’s lovely performances, but Duff’s nuanced portrayal shouldn’t be overlooked. Hardworking and imperfect, Mum struggles to be everything to everyone, sometimes giving priority to her paying tenants rather than her husband and son. Tender and nurturing towards the residents, she responds instinctively to their fears and anxieties. That she fails to do the same for her husband and son leads to their resentment.
Mum’s supportive strength is revealed when Clarence initially panics upon moving in to Lark Hall: she grasps his shaky hand, then interlaces her fingers with his, calming him down almost immediately. When he later mistakes her for his wife, Mum doesn’t remind him who she is, but rather, she lets him say what he needs to say to the woman he misses so much. In that moment, she helps Clarence—and Edward, who witnesses her good work—to make contact, with the living and the dead.