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Non-Review Review: Harry Brown

Forget your Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and your neighbourhood watch, the only real way to stop the downward trend in modern society is to give Michael Caine a gun and let him clean house. It’s fun to see Michael Caine back in leading role and it’s fun to see that the whole ‘gritty urban vigilante’ subgenre is still alive – it’s like The Brave One in a British housing estate. The film comes apart at the end, perhaps succumbing from a need to answer the iconic question ‘what’s it all about?’, and disconnecting the movie from its initially intriquing premise, but Harry Brown is a respectable old-school law-in-the-lead-characters-hands drama.

Michael Caine is... browned off...

Michael Caine is an institution. I think that film historians might well look back over the past few years as “the second golden age of Michael Caine”, ably balancing supporting roles in huge films like The Dark Knight and The Prestige with lead roles in smaller films on this side of the Atlantic, like Harry Brown and Is Anybody There? Caine brings a sort of quiet, non-showy dignity to these films and these roles, and – let’s be honest – it’s his performance in this film that makes or breaks it.

Thankfully Caine is more than up for the task. Given the nature of the story – a widower decides to take matters into his own hands after the death of his best friend – he spends most of the movie isolated, in silence. It’s the mark of a good actor to be able to carry scenes of silence as well as rapid-fire dialogue, and Caine distinguishes himself – in fact the movie rarely needs a soundtrack to evoke emotion in these quiet scenes, Caine is able to hit the tragedy of the lonely old man perfectly well by himself.

My father commented during the film that perhaps it was the perfect compliment to Up, another story of a widowed old man. Whereas Up offered the notion that sometimes you need to let go of whatever is weighing you down, here the suggestion is that somethings can’t be let go – somebody has to act. The movie handles Harry’s slow move towards vigilantism with poise and dignity – it doesn’t feel gratuitous or exploitive. Caine carries us through the character’s arc very well, a man who put his life in a box under his bed when he got married and must open it again after all this time.

The film offers a fairly effective portrayal of the kind of terror and fear which underscores these estates. The casual crimes of the yobs are ripped from the newspaper headlines. I’m sure that certain pundits will be prone to label the movie as extreme and excessive in its portrayal, but anyone who has visited any council estate in England or Ireland will empathise with the film’s most simple – but also most effective – imagery: the underpass that residents of the estate are afraid to use because of the intimidation of these vicious youths. They can simply claim a part of public land as their own, like feudal lords, and that the rest of the world will simply walk around it because of the fear of these gangs of teenagers.  We all know areas like that and we’ve all felt that intimidation, be it on the street or on public transport. It’s the simple nature of the image which renders it most effective.

And therein lies the rub. This is a film. There must be a neat little conclusion. There must be a reason and a logic behind it that the viewer must comprehend. The film’s climax offers a rational explaination for the conduct of these thugs, in order to offer us a suspenseful finale. There’s even a minor twist at play. The problem is that the reality of these out-of-control youths simply doesn’t work that way. There isn’t necessarily rhyme or reason to their actions and conduct – that’s why it’s so relentlessly terrifying, and that’s why the notion of youths out of control has latched so firmly to the collective consciousness. The movie seems to set out to portray the sheer random pointlessness of it all, but instead settles on an ending which suggests that “it’s all connected”. Maybe that’s what’s necessary to give us a structured conclusion to the film, but it can’t help but feel like a copout.

The movie tries to sell itself as an urban revenge flick, like a British Death Wish – complete with a bullseye logo and a “Michael Cain is Harry Brown” credit. I think that’s unfair. The movie works best when focusing on Michael Caine, and the feeling of loss and powerlessness that comes from being elderly and victimised for so long. It’s hard not to see that forbidden tunnel as the way Harry views the world – the lights are all blown out at one end, just leaving a huge black void waiting. Nothingness. Irrelevence. Perhaps even the black pit from whence all this mindless violence springs. Harry Brown is about as measured as a vigilante justice film can be – it’s anchored with a real human core.

It’s when looking at that mindlessness and emptiness that the movie succeeds. It’s just a shame it’s hampered by a disappointly conventional ending.

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2 Responses

  1. I would agree with your view of this movie. Caine brings an air of realism to this flick which is often forgotten in similar movies. I dont mean it was gritty and realistic but instead it conveyed the feeling of desparation and injustice and justified the actions Caine took to right the wrongs in his local area.

    Great stuff

    • That’s it Caine is a national treasure. It’s a bit of a travesty that he doesn’t get the same respect in the UK taht he does abroad (that’s his perspective, but I imagine he knows best). Fantastic actor and the single best reason to watch this film.

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