In England, old actors never die… they just get bit parts in movies about elderly people in residential care.
In the latest of these old-age home dramas “Is Anybody There?” veteran Michael Caine is superb as the retired magician, Clarence Parkinson … or “The Amazing Clarence” as the gaudy sign on the side of his battered old van proclaims.
Clarence, a widower, has been assessed by the local authority as being in the early stages of dementia and unable to care for himself any longer. A place is found for him at Lark Hall run by a couple who have turned their house into a rest home for the elderly. Among the dozen or so mainly eccentric and fairly decrepit residents, are a number of characters whose faces will be familiar to film-goers of years gone by. They certainly look older than when I recall their earlier appearances, but Leslie Phillips is no less dapper, and Sylvia Sims’ glamour, though faded, is still evident.
“Is Anybody There?” tells the story of the unlikely friendship that develops between Clarence and Edward, the eleven-year-old son of the couple who run the home. As the film’s promotional leaflet says, “It is a charming story about growing up and growing old.”
There are some hilarious moments in the film, but as the plot unfolds there are fewer laughs, and there is a profound poignancy in the way the old man and the boy try to help each other to “lay their ghosts.”
For me, some of the most poignant moments come near the end of the story. Clarence had been haunted for many years by the guilt he felt in cheating on his lovely wife, Annie and then finally walking out on her.
Talking with Edward one day, he remarked how beautiful she had been, how much he had loved her and how badly he had treated her. Then he said, “Years ago, I found out she’d died … and… you know… I’ve never even visited her grave. ”
In an attempt to help his old friend, Edward discovers where Annie is buried and takes Clarence on a bus journey to the cemetery. They locate the grave, but the old man, by now quite deeply into his dementia, looks at the name Annie Parkinson on the headstone with a measure of interest but no emotion. All he can say is, “Well, look at that… she’s got the same name as my missus.”
But even in the haze of his growing mental incapacity, Clarence is still racked with guilt. One day, after he has wandered far from the home, he ends up dazed and confused in the hands of the police. Eventually, the couple who run the home are contacted and they arrive to pick up poor old Clarence and take him back to Lark Hall.
On the way home, he is sitting in the back seat with the wife. In his confusion he thinks she is Annie and he starts to pour his heart out to her, telling her how desperately sorry he is for all the pain he has caused her. “It’s alright,” she tells him, “It’s alright.” But Clarence keeps saying over and over again, through his tears, “I’m sorry, Annie… I’m sorry, I’m terribly sorry! ” He is inconsolable.
Then the young woman does something quite extraordinary. She takes the old man’s face gently in her hands, looks into his tear-filled eyes and in a firm, but quiet and tender voice says, “I forgive you… I forgive you, Clarence.” Then, even more deliberately, “I –- forgive -- you.”
He is stunned into silence. As the words hit home, the old man’s tortured face relaxes into a gentle smile, and he nestles his head on the young woman’s shoulder, and sleeps quietly for the rest of the journey.
I am sure I will long recall many of the scenes from this remarkable film, but probably the most memorable will be the one when the back seat of that car became a confessional… the caring young woman became a priest… and a weary old sinner found forgiveness and peace.
Thanks to Barrie Hibbert, Adelaide, South Australia.
Dr Geoff Pound
Image: Images from the movie.