Is Anybody There?, 94 mins, rated M, opens in cinemas 4 June 2009.


I’ll watch any film with Michael Caine in it. He can lift an ordinary film, like The Cider House Rules (Hallstrom, 1999). He can steal a scene from anyone and anything, as in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2005 & 2008). In Children of Men (Cuaron, 2006), he simply takes your breath away. And those examples are only from films of last 10 years.

Maurice Micklewhite’s career has spanned half a century, yielding two Oscars (for Best Supporting Actor) and four Oscar nominations (for Best Actor). He was born in 1933 in London, the son of a fish-market porter and a charlady. He took his stage name from a billboard for the film The Caine Mutiny (Dmytryk, 1954). He worked in theatre and TV until he landed a role in his first film, Zulu (Endfield, 1964), and followed that by starring in The Ipcress File (Furie, 1965) and Alfie (Gilbert, 1966). A star was born.

Michael Caine makes acting look easy. He’s always natural. He’s reliable. He’s straightforward and uncomplicated. He’s riveting. And in Is Anybody There? his first appearance is shocking: he’s old!

Caine is 76, and here he looks it. He plays a retired magician called “the Amazing Clarence.” Clarence has been driving around – and living – in an outlandishly decorated old van, but now social services have caught up with him and forced him to move to a home for the aged. Lark Hall is run somewhat haphazardly by a good-hearted woman (Anne-Marie Duff) and her restless husband (David Morrissey).

There, to his dismay, he finds a bunch of elderly residents straight out of central casting. There’s the shell-shocked war veteran (Peter Vaughan), the retired dancer who now has a prosthetic leg (Rosemary Harris), and the dapper old drunk who still thinks he’s a ladies man (Leslie Phillips). The other inmates of Lark Hall include venerable actors of the British stage and screen, such as Sylvia Syms, and Elizabeth Spriggs, the latter sadly dying during post-production. Their performances are largely caricatures, hamstrung by a script that sometimes lurches between farce and pathos.

Upstaging them all, and almost matching Michael Caine’s Clarence is the young actor Bill Milner (Son of Rambow, Jennings, 2007) who plays Edward, the 10-year-old son of the owners of Lark Hall. He’s a strange boy, obsessed with death and the paranormal, going around with a clunky tape recorder – the film is set in the 80s – but he’s clever. When Clarence asks him why he’s so morbid, he answers, “Because I live here!”

Of course, it is inevitable that the bitter old magician clashes with the gloomy young boy, who’s distanced from his parents (they have their own worries). It’s inevitable that Clarence won’t fit in at Lark Hall, and that eventually Clarence will work his magic over Edward. There are no surprises here. Actually there is one – a hilarious and shocking scene when one of Clarence’s magic tricks goes horribly wrong.  That scene alone is worth the ticket price.

The predictable plotline is lifted by the lovely fresh performance by Bill Milner as Edward, and above all by Michael Caine’s sheer grace. Caine has said that he dropped his regular fee to make the film. "It's an extraordinary film. It's the only script I've ever read that made me cry. And I don't cry easily”, said Caine, who dedicated his performance to a friend who recently lost his battle with Alzheimer's Disease.

Towards the end there is a very touching scene in which Caine, suffering an episode of dementia, mistakes Edward’s mother for his own long-estranged wife. He kisses her. It’s heartbreaking. There’s no Michael Caine there. There’s no elderly magician there. There’s just a husband kissing his wife. At the risk of stating the inevitable, it’s magic.