Sunday, 22 November 2009

Harry Brown

As the beleaguered British warhorse trundles on, two cinematic splinter movements (speaking broadly) have emerged as its mirror. One is the floppy-haired, fairytale world of Richard Curtis and co. The other draws more from the British layman on the streets: a grey, grimy, melancholy land of confused identity and pervasive violence (think Ken Loach or, more recently, Shane Meadows).

There’s no doubt which our ineffectual government would rather retreat inside. There’s also no doubt which strikes the deepest chord.

Fitting then that in what is reputed to be his last headlining role, Michael Caine has gone back to his roots, back to a film about…well, Britain. The 76 year old admits drawing on memories of his impoverished upbringing for the role, and there’s not a hint of taking the money and running (it’s also, as he’s reiterated, a film ‘about violence’, not titillation). In other words, the perfect leading-man epitaph to one of our finest actors.

In it, the veteran (aptly, as much of an institution as fish and chips or trips to the seaside) does his best work in years as the titular, recently widowed ex-Marine marooned on a squalid council estate in London. Murder, drugs and assaults are rife, decent folk surrounded by a dead-end cycle of violence.

When Harry’s best friend Len (David Bradley) meets a terrible end at the hands of thug Noel (Ben Drew), the pensioner is galvanised into action, venturing into a crack den to claim a fire arm in one of 2009’s most outstandingly creepy scenes (and featuring one of its scariest performances, in Sean Harris’ whispering junkie psycho, Stretch). Brown realises it’s up to him, not the authorities, to take a stand.

However it’s not all plain sailing. The shoe-horned in rozzer angle (here assayed by Emily Mortimer and Charlie Creed Miles in roles stretched to implausible archetypes) is a thankless task that never takes off, although later developments involving a seemingly insignificant background player add further layers of emotional complexity.

Quite simply, in spite of its flaws, Harry Brown is a film that demands to be seen, both for home-grown audiences and those elsewhere labouring under the ill-conceived image of Blighty peddled by Hollywood. The Britain of the film feels tangibly and depressingly real, even when exaggerated somewhat for cinematic effect.

For the most part though, the film remains remarkably balanced, never falling into one-sided agit-prop tactics. Just enough background info is sprinkled around about the film’s ‘villains’, something which ultimately forces our hand: hatred is generated but sympathy too? That’s an accomplished move for a film that could have been content with simply pointing fingers. Director Daniel Barber’s pacing is commendably leisurely; a noirish deployment of light and colour always on hand to prevent things sliding from ambiguity into wish fulfilment fantasy.

All the more disappointing then that the movie bottles it at the climax, wrapping social mores up with a nice bow. If only reality was so straightforward...Hey, perhaps politicians will endorse the film after all?

On a side note, I saw this film at a preview screening and much to my surprise, it was a full-house, presumably because Michael Caine's name can still bring in the punters. I think that's a touching send-off for you, Charlie Crocker!

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