Every one of us is charged with finding our own private balance between staying on track and surrendering to the call of diversion. When we look back, which of these things will have ruled us? Which granted us that thing that we ultimately lived for? The thing about Odd Horten (Bård Owe), the thing that makes him such a wonderful character for a charming little film like the one named after him, is that he actually took as his vocation a commitment to traversing the same route over and over, taking pride in sliding back and forth with maximum efficiency and minimum discomfort. He was a railway engineer, cultivating the Oslo-Bergen line for 40 years. When we meet him he’s retiring at the age of 67. They give him a party and a little commemorative train as a parting gift. A bachelor, he seems to have nothing to do now save the maintenance of his simple pleasures, his pipe and his beer. But without explicitly indicating some inner urge toward adventure—our hero is a man of few words—he’ll use his retirement to quietly cede his destiny to the dictates of chance.
O’Horten is the third feature from Norwegian writer/director Bent Hamer. Like his period piece Kitchen Stories, in which social scientists examined the habits of bachelors, and Factotum, the melancholy comedy of dreary day jobs and career drinking based on Charles Bukowski’s novel of the same name, O’Horten moves to its own quirky and subtle sense of comic propulsion. I enjoyed the film very much. Still, after watching it I caught myself and wondered if it maybe wasn’t all a bit too slight—but that’s a self-conscious film critic talking. Hamer’s style is unassuming. His story seems threaded so loosely as to tear with the slightest force. Yet upon scrutinizing my memories of O’Horten some weeks later, I found that so many individual moments were still with me and giving me pleasure, moments that remain vivid, curious, warm, rich in detail, and finally adding up to a lot more than it might first seem. A quieter variation on About Schmidt, it’s a portrait of life a little frayed and gray but still chugging ahead, still being explored however one can still manage. And it conveys an optimism that’s pretty rare in movies this personal or this artful.
Shot by John Christian Rosenlund, who also shot Factotum as well as The Bothersome Man, another, even more peculiar Norwegian comedy, O’Horten is filled with wintry cold nights that feel strangely warm, especially in sequences like that where Odd exits a favoured watering hole to find people sliding home down newly iced-over streets. The nearly silent nights imbue Odd’s wanderings—into a strange child’s bedroom where he’s forced to spend the night, into the home of an eccentric old tippler, into a car with a blindfolded driver—with a pointed sense of possibility. Things do get precariously absurd, yet Owe, with his soft, handsome blue eyes and that mouth that burrows into moustached, rumpled cheeks whenever he smiles, makes it all seems more or less reasonable. Maybe this is how you get after four decades of train travel and dutiful service, perfectly calm and composed, and ready to go completely off the rails.
Are all only children this endearingly morbid? The kid lives with his folks in their run-down family-run old folks home somewhere in rural England, circa 1987. Surrounded by so many souls ambling around death’s threshold, he gets the idea to set up a tape recorder to try and capture the nocturnal rattle and hum of ghosts who haven’t quite found the way out. So 10-year-old Edward (Bill Milner) sets out one morning with his headphones on, hoping to hear transmissions from the land of the dead. He nearly gets his wish when the Amazing Clarence (Michael Caine) narrowly avoids running him over with his magic van.
The encounter constitutes a cross-generational meet-cute between a precocious oddball fixated on spiritualism and this ornery widower, an aging philanderer and retired stage magician driven to suicide by guilt and loneliness. It doesn’t take a psychic to see that this pair will become ostensibly unlikely pals over the course of Is Anybody There? Edward’s bored and desperate for some paranormal action—who ya gonna call? Clarence needs someone to help redeem his tainted memories and confirm his talents, and nothing fits the bill like a young innocent easily impressed by card tricks or a phony séance. (Clarence also needs someone to give him a reason for grooming. Unshaven and under-slept, Caine looks like a werewolf suffering from hair loss.) It’s obvious these two were made for each other.
Edward’s parents however are another story. His mum (Anne-Marie Duff) works her fingers to the bone to keep their place in running order, while dad (David Morrissey) becomes increasingly negligent thanks to early onset of midlife crisis. He comes home one day with a designer mullet to help perfect his I’m-the-next-drummer-for-Maiden look. He’s aching to win the affection of their teenage employee but mostly just manages to embarrass himself and everyone else.
There’s a lot going on in Is Anybody There? though rest assured everything fits all too neatly into the thematic thrust of Peter Harness’ script, which tries to balance the macabre with saccharine whimsy, though the latter wins out by a long shot. It’s cheerier territory for Boy A director John Crowley, but his approach simply feels more generic. The saving grace is the cast, and Caine’s elderly Alfie does have his moments, such as the lovely little scene where the old atheist whispers his dead wife’s name in the mirror with the sad flicker of a hope that she might answer. Milner’s not excessively ingratiating, yet he’s saddled with a character whose journey isn’t as compelling as his starting point, which is simply to say he was more interesting when he was just a troubled tyke and not the prop of an over-eager screenwriter. (And really, what kind of a name for a little kid is Bill Milner?) Both Duff and Morrissey shine in their surprisingly well-drawn supporting characters, yet here too, their happy ending feels annoyingly pushy. Only the quirky collection of aged residents is overwhelmingly tough to bear, though even here I blame the material over the actors. The sort of dottiness and sentimentality on display in their scenes careens between flabby farce and the sort of sap you’d expect from religious programming.