Ten year-old Edward (Milner) lives in a house that his parents have turned into a nursing home. While Mum struggles with the business and Dad confronts a midlife crisis, Ed obsesses about where the residents spirits go when they die. Then Clarence (Caine
As an opening motif, two undertakers attempting, unsuccessfully, to wrestle a full bodybag onto a stairlift is a good one. Pathos, humour and horror in one galling yet clumsy scene sets the tone for a film that addresses the indignity of ageing, the onset of dementia and one of the most unlikely friendships since Harold and Maude ran amok on the west coast of America during the ’70s. And just as Harold was haunted by the idea of his own demise, the young Edward (Bill Milner) is just as fascinated by the fleeting spirits of the dead and dying in the nursing home in which he lives, to the point of leaving a tape recorder under the residents’ beds in the hope of capturing the sound of their last breath.
Screenwriter Peter Harness grew up with his parents running their own old folks’ home so, like Edward, he too sat in an attic hating the fact that he had to share it with a generation he couldn’t comprehend. Here, a group of oldies (including Leslie Phillips and Sylvia Syms) are uprooted from their homes and the lives they thought would last forever, and are now waiting, ostensibly, to die. And while the doddering cast shine, and both David Morrissey (whose sudden mullet haircut says more about his internal despair than a hundred soliloquies ever could) and Anne-Marie Duff are mesmerising as the parents being pulled apart by circumstance, it’s the relationship between Edward and Clarence (Michael Caine) that is the axis on which this sometimes colourless, shrinking world turns.
In another life, Clarence was the Amazing Clarence, a handsome touring magician. In this, he’s a penurious, curmudgeonly widower cast adrift as his mind, ironically, starts playing tricks on him. In time, he and Edward become firm friends, Clarence teaching the guileless Edward both life and magic lessons, while the young boy helps bring the faltering magician out of his remorseful reverie.
Occasionally mawkish it may be, but with its enjoyable set-pieces, a jaw-dropping magic trick gone bloodily awry, a hapless Clarence utterly lost at the wheel of his old tour van, plus the fleeting bond between two people set at opposing ends of life’s spectrum, it becomes an irresistible piece of filmmaking; sometimes ridiculous, more often sublime.
Caine leads an impeccable cast in a story that is as touching as it is funny, turning the mundane minutiae of fading lives into a vibrant display.