People think of film primarily as a visual medium, so movie buffs frequently focus on their favorite images or sequences. Less often do you hear people talk about their favorite sounds in film. When I think of my favorite cinematic noises, I recall the boinging opening bars of Looney Tunes theme music, Holly Hunter's rapid-fire drawl, or the trilling theremin wails from 1950s sci-fi films.
But none do I love more than the voice of Michael Caine. In his half-century film career, he's polished his cockney so well, it's like the Stradivarius of the working-class London accent. Audiences probably recall his dignified purr of the line, "Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England," from his Oscar-winning turn in The Cider House Rules. I prefer him blaring his vowels in high dudgeon, as in 1998's otherwise forgettable Little Voice, singing "It's Over" as a roof-rattling bellow "It's O-VAH!"
Caine may be 76 years old, but it's definitely not over for the two-time Oscar winner. A new generation knows him for his witty, seasoned turns as Alfred the butler in Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. He proves at once frail and robust in his leading role as a seedy, aging magician in Is Anybody There? Directed by John Crowley, Is Anybody There? is one of those low-budget showcases of a screen legend in his sunset years, reminiscent of Peter O'Toole's Venus from 2006. (Anybody's supporting cast even includes O'Toole's Venus partner, Leslie Phillips.)
Such films tend to be considered the equivalent of a gold watch for retiring movie stars, but Caine proves anything but mellow in his performance. For his first appearance, he bursts out of a van snapping at a boy. His red-face and bedraggled gray whiskers almost give him the aspect of an angry Scottie dog (inappropriately enough). Caine plays the Amazing Clarence, who no longer puts on shows but still has a penchant for sleight-of-hand card tricks, and until recently, lived in a van with his name painted on the side.
Bitching all the while, Clarence moves into Lark Hall, an English residence converted into an old-age home by a working-class couple (David Morrissey and Anne-Marie Duff). With so many doddering residents, Mum and Dad barely have time to pay attention to their 10-year-old son Edward (Bill Milner), who's grown up obsessed with ghost hunting and the afterlife. Surrounded by death and decrepitude, Edward investigates supernatural phenomenon at every opportunity. He even leaves a tape recorder under deathbeds, hoping to hear paranormal manifestations. Edward proves particularly frustrated with his father, who wrestles with a midlife crisis and attraction to a teenage caregiver.
Edward resents Clarence for occupying his old room, while Clarence mourns the loss of his wife and rages at the boy's intrusions and his own failing faculties. It's obvious that Clarence and Edward will become great chums, even though they snarl at each other in their first scenes. Soon Clarence is holding séances for Edward in the basement, and the boy starts looking out for the old man. Fortunately, both characters retain their edge for most of the film as they carry harsh emotions and lash out at others. Clarence pushes Edward to connect with the living, not the dead, but their mismatched friendship seems insufficient to solve each other's problems.
Is Anybody There? delivers a thin coming-of-age story and sends a mixed message about old people. The film finds heavy-handed humor in Lark Hall's gaping, toothless residents, with their trembling hands, bubble wrap, and boozy, dirty rhymes. Caine's performance, however, captures the emotional turmoil of the elderly. He resists the script's sentimental instincts, even in a nostalgic speech about meeting his late wife, and a despairing one about how old age is like seeing the universe dwindle to a pinpoint.
Caine doesn't pour on his roguish charm often, but is spellbinding when he does. Throughout the film, he instructs Edward in the importance of patter. During his inevitable magic show, he shares a bit of trivia about the French Revolution before a fateful trick with a tiny guillotine. It's like a miniature version of Caine explaining stage magic principles in The Prestige, or the craft of mystery stories in Sleuth and Deathtrap. I could listen to that voice for hours.