In old age, your body no longer serves you so well.
Muscles slacken, grip weakens, joints stiffen.
The shades are pulled down on the world.
You can’t come and go at will. Things grind to a halt. ..
Life, lovely while it lasts, is soon over.
Life as we know it, precious and beautiful, ends.
The body is put back in the same ground it came from.
The spirit returns to God, who first breathed it.
Ecclesiastes 12:3-4; 6-7
Not since Venus and The Notebook has the terrors of growing old and confronting death been so well depicted as in director John Crowley’s and screenwriter Peter Harness’ delightful film. I write “delight ful” because it is far from being morbid, because it is peppered with man funny moments, as well as quiet ones that stir memories and raise questions. Chronicling the unlikely friendship between an elderly man entering the dark world of senility and a boy just starting to think about life (and death), this small film raises some big questions in the minds of viewers, but wisely does not try to answer them.
Ten-year-old Edward (Bill Milner, star of Son of Rambow) is resentful that his Mum (Anne-Marie Duff) and Dad (David Morrissey) have turned their ramshackle house into what they call Lark Hill Retirement Home. David has been displaced from his comfortable room into what must have been a storage pantry, so confined and cramped is it. He hopes that he can regain his old digs when the current occupant dies, but, no, Mum welcomes another resident into the home. He is Clarence Parkinson (Michael Caine), a doddering old man who had been rambling about in an old van painted like a circus wagon, his former occupation emblazoned on its sides, “The Amazing Clarence.” Longing for the old days when his magic drew large audiences, and countless dalliances with the ladies who came back stage to meet him, he is certain that he does not belong amidst the residents of Lark Hill.
Edward and Clarence immediately clash. Edward, with an obsessive interest in what happens when a person dies, plants his tape recorder beneath the beds of the residents about to die in the hope of catching some audible sound of the soul leaving the body, or some evidence of the spirit lingering after the moment of death. Later, after the two have become friends, Clarence tells the boy that the sighing sound his recorder has picked up is just the sound of the last breath of air being exhaled by the dying person. Upon learning that Edward is somewhat of an outsider at school, Clarence teaches the boy some magic tricks, designed to make him more acceptable, especially at the dreaded birthday party that his parents are planning for him.
Clarence, Edward discovers, is wracked with feelings of guilt. His many affairs with women had destroyed his marriage, and only after its dissolution has he realized how deeply he had loved his wife. Now she is dead, and he wishes with all his heart that he could tell her how sorry he is. How Edward arranges to sneak him out to visit her grave site—and how matters take a bizarre turn at the birthday party include moments of humor and pathos.
There is a subplot involving Mum and Dad that reflect Clarence’s philandering past. Mum is depicted as so compassionately involved in the care of their elderly residents that she neglects both son and husband, so Dad seeks to have an affair with the young girl serving as an aide. How this affects them and Edward, leading, after initial pain, to a maturing of all concerned, adds to the overall impact of the film, but never detracts from the primary plot of the spring-winter relationship of Edward and Clarence. This is one of those films that make producing Visual Parables such an enjoyable task. Costing less than the CG effects of the summer blockbusters, Is Anybody There? is worth a hundred of them, lingering in the mind and heart long after the empty summer films have faded from screen and memory.
For Reflection and discussion May contain spoilers.
1. How has the presence of the elderly residents contributed to Edward’s morbid fascination with dying and death? How do you think his distracted parents could have better helped him to adjust to their transforming their home into a residence for the elderly? Compare the boy to the one in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
2. Have you thought much about growing old, other than perhaps recalling the words of Dylan Thomas about not going “gently into the night” ? How does the film reflect what the “Preacher” says in the Ecclesiastes passage?
3. What do you think of Clarence’s words to Edward, “Join hands, and make contact with the living, son” ? How does Clarence help the boy to do this? How does Clarence affect the other residents at Lark Hill?
4.Clarence shows great remorse over his past life. Compare his confession to that of David’s in Psalm 51.
5. How is this a more realistic film than some by showing what happens to Clarence? What has been your experience with residents of nursing homes? (A writer in the New York Times Magazine writes that no matter how much owners try to make their establishments look like The Marriott, they still are places where people in bad physical health are waiting to die.) The characters in the film do not display much religious faith: how can this be a comfort in dealing with old age and dying?
6. What meanings do you see in the film’s title? One scene which might be connected: Clarence is sitting with Edward and relating how he once looked out at the stars with a sense of wonder at the size of the universe—though this is joined with his comment about his present sad plight.
7. For what Clarence was like during his youthful days see the film that also starred Michael Caine, Alfie. Both the theme song and Alfie’s almost life-changing experience display remorse, but as the ending of that film shows, old habits die hard.