Coming-of-age tales all follow a basic formula: Take a maladjusted youth and take him through a journey of discovery that transforms him into a better person. The bad news is that Crowley’s mid-1980s-set British drama follows that formula directly. The good news is that you’re not likely to care. This is an affecting and poignant film from start to finish, punctuated by some unexpected touches and truly splendid acting from its lead.
Edward (Milner) is a lonely kid—he’s growing up in a nursing home run by his parents, who are too busy to pay any attention to him. To escape, he fantasizes about ghosts and the afterlife, viewing the clients as little more than experimental subjects—he places a tape recorder under patients’ beds to see if he can “hear” their spirits leave their bodies. His connection with the living comes in the form of the home’s newest resident, the Amazing Clarence (Caine), a misanthropic traveling magician mourning the death of his wife.
You’d expect Caine to eventually become the father figure Edward never got, or Edward’s parents to be ogres. Guess again. Crowley lovingly creates a world where everyone matters, from parents who are as flawed as they are compassionate to nursing-home residents who, as Caine’s Clarence so eloquently borrows from Dylan Thomas, rage against the dying of the light. And Caine, as a man raging against the ravages of Alzheimer’s, gives one of the finest performances of his career, elevating a minor film into a minor classic.