Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Rage Against The Dying Of The Light

Have you ever noticed that the English seem to have an unending supply of wide-eyed pre- or just-pubescent boys who can act well and who all look vaguely similar? Just off the top of my head, there was (in recent years): Paul Terry (James and the Giant Peach), Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), Freddy Highmore (Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and now we have Bill Milner in the new coming-of-age/dying-of-age story Is Anybody There?

There seems to be an endless supply of parts for this age (say, like, 9 to 13 or 14) but, of course, it's not something an actor can build a long career on. It's got an even shorter lifespan that "starlet" as far as career paths go. And much like our starlets, the English never seem to run out of them. But finding beautiful young women is a numbers game made easy by the fact that they sort of just happen, and they tend to congregate in highly visible areas.

It's a lot more impressive to see someone like Milner or Highmore, who somehow have managed to acquire some serious talent in their short times. Why, back in the day, (particularly American) child actors were both hard to work with and not very good. You had lower standards, and you weren't surprised when they didn't have adult careers. A Jodie Foster or Jackie Earle Haley was a rare thing.

I'm starting to wonder if they have some sort of cloning device/Treadstone program for actors o'er there.

But, I digress. Milner, who was in the previously reviewed Son of Rambow, plays a pubescent boy whose parents have turned their house into a rest home to save themselves from bankruptcy. Young Edward (Milner) responds to this by becoming sullen and obsessed with life after death.

Into this picture comes The Amazing Clarence in his painted mini-camper, a travelling magician whose wife is convincing him to stay "for just a while", something which doesn't appeal to him, especially given the sorry cast of despondent old folks populating the house. Clarence's wife, one can't help but notice, is at least young enough to be his daughter. Hell, biologically, he's probably old enough to be her grandfather (which is to say, he's probably 30 years older).

And one thinks, if one is me, that the old fella is doing pretty damn good if he can live in that tiny camper van with his pretty young wife and still be agile enough to put on magic shows. But then, Clarence is played Michael Caine, so it seems completely plausible.

Edward and Clarence have a rough start, to say the least. Clarence is harboring huge regrets while Edward is filled with hostility. And throughout the course of an hour-and-a-half, we get to see all kinds of takes on mortality. Edward's father, about to hit 40, is acutely aware of his own mortality, we learn, as he sees his service to the older people as leeching his life away.

The other old people themselves are all handling their twilights with different degrees of aplomb. And because it's an English movie, they've all got their chops, and you recognize them at least a little (and in the case of Rosemary Harris, a lot), and never a moment is wasted.

The Boy commented that (once again) this wasn't the wacky comedy the trailers made it out to be, but neither should you get the idea that it's grim. It's funny, sometimes very darkly funny and poignant at the same time, entertaining and restrained. It doesn't wallow. The big emotional scenes are Caine's, and they have not to do with getting older, but with unforgiven sin.

Which, when you get down to it, is what really makes a tragedy. Everybody dies. It's the thought of sinning and being unforgiven that tortures us.

Since we've been talking about dramatic structure lately, I have to say that the 2nd act climax is huge, and probably Oscar-worthy for Caine. I saw the resolution coming well in advance, but it was still very satisfying.

Ultimately, then, this is an optimistic movie about life. Keep in mind, though, that Caine reported crying on reading the script and his (pretty, younger) wife was shaken up by seeing his (pretend) deterioration.

Actually, it kind of disturbed me, since Caine was one of the first actors I could identify, and he (as Dennis Miller put it) was contractually obligated to appear in every single movie made in the '80s. He's always seemed to age without getting old. It's a little hard to see him and a lot of other actors that seemed sort-of fatherly (Albert Finny, Alan Arkin, Peter O'Toole, Christopher Plummer) play these roles where you're about 80% sure their death is a critical plot point.

The title Is Anybody There? comes from a seance scene that Caine performs to give Edward some hope. But, of course, it also works as a question for those whose minds are going, or who have just given up with age. And it works as the great spiritual question, as well: Is anybody there? Or are we just bodies ultimately consigned to nothingness.

Expect to see this mentioned in the Oscars race for next year.

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