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Michael Caine On New Film Is Anybody There?
Jeremy Allen , May 6th, 2009 12:46

The legendary Sir Michael Caine talks about his latest film Is Anybody There?, about an unlikely friendship between a young boy and a geriatric magician. Jeremy Allen found the film brought back memories of similar childhood experiences

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You don't see old people much these days. I don't mean in real life of course; the streets are full of them, as are the buses and the supermarkets. The aged are everywhere, except on our screens. Clint Eastwood tackled the subject in his awkward but eminently watchable Gran Torino, but in Britain in particular, those that are drawing their pensions have all but disappeared from our television sets. Coronation Street used to be a bastion of belligerent and bad-tempered battleaxes, now ousted to make way for racier story lines with comely nubiles and boys who look like Tin Tin. Maud Grimes and the like have been wheeled off to the sunshine home as the Hollyoaksification of our media takes hold.

Congratulations are in order, then, to the talented young playwright Peter Harness and to director John Crowley for unashamedly devoting so much of their movie Is Anybody There? to the doddery. And to Michael Caine, who uncharacteristically eschewed a big money project to film a picture that touched him (Caine, you'll probably be aware, has been sounding off about tax again, threatening to emigrate to preserve his massive wedge).

"Many scripts make me laugh, but this one made me laugh and it also made me cry," he told The Quietus. "That hadn't happened before."

Caine took time out from making box office behemoth The Dark Knight, to deliver yet another memorable turn. The character was an unusual one, even in Caine's 40 year career. Clarence is a crotchety, very old-school magician who is finding it hard to cope with the loss of his wife, his career and his memory. The irascible octogenarian is forced to enter an old folks home, much to his audible chagrin.

"I’ve done all sorts of movies in my career, and certainly The Dark Knight is the biggest movie I’ve ever done,” he explains. “It was eight months, during which time I worked for 12 days, so I had lots of time off to study the script for Is Anybody There? I was a repertory actor when I was young, so I used to do 30, 40 or 50 plays a year, every one different, every person different, so for me now, with this film in particular, I could play someone who wasn’t me, and who wasn’t even like me, and could work on it. If I’m honest, I got the money off The Dark Knight, and the experience from this one.

“The whole thing was a challenge, right from the start. I’m proud of it. There’s no Michael Caine there, there’s no ego there. You just see poor Clarence. But I did enjoy his cantankerous nature. I’ve never done a really old guy like that.”

It wasn't hard for the actor to prepare. To play the role he conjured up some cursory observational memories of magicians at children's parties, mixed with the palpable sense of the loss of his dear friend Doug Hayward.

“The first thing I did was to remember back to when I did little parties for my daughters, we always had a conjurer and I noticed that his hair was always parted in the middle. So, the first thing I did was to part my hair in the middle.

“Then I said to Scott [Penrose - the on-set-conjurer] , ‘Your hair is parted in the middle and I've parted my hair in the middle…’, and he replied, ‘Do you know why we do that? Houdini parted his hair in the middle and we are all fans of Houdini.’ So, that's how I prepared; I started by parting my hair in the middle – and wound up in tears just thinking about my friend who died of dementia.

“I obviously brought a lot of experience of how it was to suffer from dementia, because Dougie was one of my closest friends and he died while we were making the film. I hadn’t really thought about it, because it’s not a film about a guy with dementia. It’s just a film about an old magician and a little boy. So, I didn't think about it honestly until I really came to the moment, and then it struck me.”

He's ably supported by an impressive cast, including the wonderful Anne-Marie Duff, and the much-lauded character-actor David Morrissey, who brings comedy and pathos to his 'dad' character, facing a midlife crisis and trying to get off with the 18-year-old care helper.

There's a who's who of classic British film actors: Leslie Phillips, Sylvia Syms, Elizabeth Spriggs (who died shortly after filming the movie) to name a few, who bring a peculiar vitality and atmosphere to the film, even if individually their characters are a little one dimensional.

"I watched all these great old actors and the movies they made" says Caine. "I never got a part in British films for ages and ages. So I knew them from the screen as a fan; I sort of had that attitude."

Clarence is befriended by a child who lives in the home, played by Bill Milner (Son of Rambow).

"Unlike all other child actors I could absolutely trust him to be there like I was acting with an adult actor," says Caine. "That's an incredible thing."

The child, James, becomes obsessed with the afterlife and spends much of his solitary time attempting to contact ghosts and spirits in a bid to determine whether or not there is an afterlife. He strikes up an unlikely friendship with the new resident, though both have widely different perspectives on the matter - the child full of awe and intrigue, Clarence with low expectations and a resignation that, like the magic he performs to the wonder of children, it's all a bit of a fib.

The big question is, is Is Anybody There? any good? And the answer is, yes, mostly. The boy's predicament is well handled. Such rugged isolation; constantly being around strange, gray, depressed, alien people certainly struck a chord. For a short time in the 1980s (which incidentally is when the film is set - though that's never really developed or indeed intrinsic), I was cocooned in the hinterland of mentally unwell geriatrics, preparing themselves for imminent checking out. Through a sequence of events that were out of my control, I lived in a home for the mentally ill, with broken, shadowy people with brains like those of helpless children. I should stress I hadn't been sectioned, but at times it felt like it. The strange detachment and the nagging sense that all the kids at school think you're a freak certainly hit home. I found James' isolation moving and understandable, though I personally never became obsessed with magic or the undead - I spent most of my time holed up in a caravan in the backyard drinking endless Panda pops listening to Sgt Pepper. The listlessness and the loneliness are well documented, mostly thanks to Bill Milner's performance.

The evident frustration of Duff and Morrissey's characters also rings true. Their initial, benevolent intentions soon become replaced with the pragmatic reality of being perpetually on call without a day off in sight, and any glamour or pizazz they once enjoyed or aspired to is traded for a sense that what they're doing is right, although Morrissey's character isn't sure that's enough any more. The film manages to summon the relentlessness, the constant nagging from all quarters, as well as the pergatorial stasis of such an existence, though inevitably this will agitate the less attentive viewer and cause some fidgeting in seats. Last but not least, it's another bravura performance from Caine. The pace, the feel, and the performances are a delight, though as comedies go, I have to say I didn't find it very funny. But then, old age isn't funny is it?