The beat-up camper van has "The Amazing Clarence" painted on its sides, and Michael Caine - as Clarence, an old magician with a dusty repertoire of card tricks and sleights of hand - is equally dented, rusted, broken down.

In Is Anybody There? the great English actor's face is covered in stubble and a glaze of forgetfulness: Clarence, angry and alone, has reluctantly checked himself into Lark Hall, an old-age home. He's contemptuous of his doddering housemates - elderly widows and geriatric gents lost in their memories. But he's got his own memories of a wife long gone, of a career as an entertainer and illusionist.

Set in an English seaside town in the mid-1980s, Is Anybody There? is about the friendship that develops between Clarence and Edward (Son of Rambow's wide-eyed, gawky Bill Milner), a sensitive 10-year-old whose house has been taken over by this needy team of seniors. His parents (Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey) have been operating the retirement home for only a year, giving Edward's room to one of the guests, and giving their son a close-up look at old age and, yes, dying.

"Don't be scared of death, love," says Edward's mum.

"I'm not scared. I just want to see what happens," explains Edward, who uses his trusty blue tape recorder to capture the sounds of bodies expiring, of spirits trailing off to the next world.

Caine moves through the less-than-surprising story line, shaking things up not with an actorly flamboyance but with a heartbreaking sense of quiet tragedy and regret. It's a beautiful performance, and young Milner holds up his end of the bargain, too.

- Steven Rea