I’m not one who enjoys the phrase “sleeper hit” because almost any movie is looking for some bit of success. However, it comes to mind for this movie because I hadn’t heard of it until midway through the week in which I saw it. Even on the independent film scene it seemed to have slipped under the radar.
This film is in a word: beautiful. It is funny in one moment, shocking in another and absolutely heartbreaking the next. It is a movie that searches for the meaning of life without ever being pretentious, and is always being sincere. The meaning is searched for backwards and uniquely. It tells the tale of Edward (Bill Milner), a young boy who lives with his parents in their old folks’ home, and who thus, becomes obsessed with death.
After a chance encounter with Clarence (Michael Caine) Edward finds him in the home. After some head-butting the two grow closer. The one sheet for this film is the kind that will get you nervous with anticipation for Michael Caine’s performance, one critic citing it as “the performance of his career.” Thankfully, this is no lie. We all know Caine can be funny, acerbic and occasionally charming. This performance, however, is magnificent in its arc and power and even the man himself was unable to control his emotion watching this film, and neither was I. He is fantastic.
Caine’s performance alone is not enough to propel this film to the heights it reaches. The film’s young lead Bill Milner proved that the success of last year’s Son of Rambow was most definitely no fluke and this film reveals Milner to be unquestionably the strongest actor of his generation. Here Milner carries much of the film alone, whereas in Rambow he and Poulter played off each other. We see Milner here as a much more complex character: dissatisfied with life, angry, rebellious, confused, hopeful for something better, and yet somehow innocent throughout all this. Holding the screen and making a story that could be morbid funny and sharing the screen with a living legend make his performance nothing short of astonishing.
This film was written as a period piece set in 1987. I wholeheartedly applaud this decision and I think it was made in large part to make the piece more intimate to allow Edward’s quest for answers about the afterlife to be conducted through his own ingenuity most of the time, as opposed to the cold and distant research that the Internet Age would provide.
Many of the frames in this film are absolutely beautiful in terms of depth (looking down hallways, corridors, on a rooftop), the use of obstruction in the foreground (occasionally out of focus) and just the overall mise-en-scène is typically interesting. For example, in a scene where Edward and Clarence are walking and talking – the shot starts on the back of Clarence’s truck with the words “It’s Magic!” dominating the scene and then pans over to find them. Everything is well thought out from lights through the back window of Edward’s mother’s car to the reflections on the windshield.
It is a tender, funny, wonderful film which will likely be branded as coming-of-age which I think would not do it justice. This film can be seen and appreciated by all as it examines the human condition more so than anything else and says some wonderful things about it.