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Harry Brown - The Ex-Communicator

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November 23rd, 2009

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11:46 am - Harry Brown
Harry Brown is the new British film starring Michael Caine. My all time favourite film is Get Carter, and I feel that its influence extends across a great deal of subsequent British film and television. There is always a danger when you love a film that you see its influence where it does not exist, but I am certain that this film, like Life on Mars, was explicitly informed by Get Carter. However, unlike Life on Mars, I think it gets it wrong.

Get Carter is a deep and complex film, with poetry of language and structure, and no simple message or meaning. In contrast Harry Brown is a simple, perhaps even stupid, film with a simplistic conservative (and Tory) message. Having said that, it is not worthless. Caine is an interesting actor; I believe he is probably not brainy in the abstract reasoning sense, but he has a charisma to project depth and nuance out of nothing. I think he's been in far more bad films than good ones, but he seems to be able to put on integrity as if they had never happened, as if he was better than this nonsense even while he is in it.

Although I think the story and meaning of the film are a bit stupid, it is well crafted. It builds gently as we follow Harry Brown - a mild mannered pensioner - through his humble life in a run down council estate, somewhere like Peckham. It's interesting that although he is meant to be the age of my parents, his clothes and the decoration of his house closely resemble my grandparents'. Caine, and the character, are at the cusp of old age, but what you see on screen signals late old age. That means his transformation into a Charles-Bronson style vigilante is both plausible (he has the capability) and wrenching (but he seems so old).

The transformation into a vigilante begins quite slowly and accidentally. He kills a pitiful mugger, by accident, and goes back to his flat and washes himself and scrubs his lino floor. Up until this point the film is realistic and low key. He then goes to buy a gun. At this point the story tips over into silliness, albeit enjoyable ultra-violent sentimental daftness. The gun merchants appear to be demonic, living among those thick semi-transparent white plastic sheets suspended from the ceiling, that signal 'you are in hell now'. I started to feel we were stepping into reefer madness territory.

It is obligatory when referencing Get Carter that the protagonist sees a porn film, and is changed by it into a killing machine. True enough, this is precisely what happens to Harry Brown in the gun den. But in Get Carter, and any homage to it, this should reveal complexity, make the hero question himself, plunge him into nihilistic self-doubt.

But instead, and for the rest of the film, what happens is that all complexity is washed away. Instead we increasingly discover who are the baddies, and who the goodies, and that while violence by baddies is bad, violence by goodies is of course good. This does mean that there are some nicely camptastic bits, for instance Caine leading a rent boy into an underpass on a dog lead. But overall, it demeans the audience with a message that doesn't really reflect how the world is or how it can be put right.

(5 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:November 23rd, 2009 12:03 pm (UTC)
Caine has certainly made an impressive number of truly awful films, and he's refreshingly relaxed about it. I like actors who realise they're just actors and that their job is acting, not changing the world. And whenever he gets a decent role he's simply superb. Somehow I still find myself surprised every time I see a great performance from him, which is strange because even with all those bad movies he's still had a fairly dazzling career. And you're right, he has that ability simply to shrug off the bad movies.

My all-time favourite Michael Caine performance would be a difficult choice between Sleuth (in which he goes very close to out-hamming Olivier, the greatest ham of them all, but the movie works brilliantly because hamminess is exactly what is required) and The Man Who Would Be King, which also happens to be the best thing John Huston ever did.
[User Picture]
Date:November 23rd, 2009 12:27 pm (UTC)
I love the Ipcress File
[User Picture]
Date:November 23rd, 2009 12:39 pm (UTC)
I love all the Harry Palmer films, but Billion Dollar Brain is my favourite. Funeral in Berlin is the least succesful in my view. One of the most underrated movies of the 60s. I admire Caine for not doing more of the Harry Palmer movies. Always leave them wanting more! If only a few modern film-makers understood that concept.
[User Picture]
Date:November 23rd, 2009 02:45 pm (UTC)
Yes you describe it well. That was my problem with the film: it's borderline unthinking Daily Mail bait. Caine is great in it though.
[User Picture]
Date:November 23rd, 2009 04:00 pm (UTC)
It's well crafted and nicely acted Daily Mail bait.

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