Film Review | Sunday, 10 January 2010

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There’s no getting Caine

The Brits seem to be cinematically confident about two things: costume dramas and crime thrillers. Notwithstanding the occasional transatlantic crossover (demonstrated recently by ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and ‘State of Play’), it is in these two genres that the UK feels the desire to shine in… and they don’t seem to want to touch anything else. Which is a shame, really, because a good dose of Brit comedy, for example, would serve as a great boon to the multiplexes; countering the tedious torrent of Stateside-spewed romcoms with a refreshing dose of stiff-upper-lipped black humour. But alas, we’ll have to turn to TV (or YouTube) for quality stuff in that department, and enjoy the grisly-and-grimy pleasures of pictures like ‘Harry Brown’ on the big screen, in which a debuting director (Daniel Barber) attempts to re-ignite Michael Caine’s glory years (recalling ‘Get Carter’) by juxtaposing a Charlie Bronson-meets-western conceit onto a harsh London council estate overrun by young delinquents.
Ex-Marine Harry Brown (Michael Caine) lives a bleak life in a bleak area; his sole distractions from the sounds of gunshots and youth violence being hospital visits to his dying wife and solemn games of chess at the local pub in the company of his only friend Leonard (David Bradley), who is beginning to lose patience with the harassment he has been suffering at the hands of criminal youths. After his wife finally dies, Leonard is also taken away from him, as the kids push him over the edge, driving him to foolishly confront them. As a police investigation begins, Harry is interviewed by Detective Inspector Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and Detective Sgt Terry Hickock (Charlie Creed Miles), who reveal the details of Leonard’s death to him, leading Harry to realise that, if anything is to be done, he must take the law into his own hands.
As a setup, it does not serve up anything particularly unique. In fact, the pleasures of the film lie, interestingly enough, in what’s predictable. You know the atmospheric, drawn out intro is simply there to make the inevitable can of elderly whoopass crack open with as much aplomb as is possible. And it does, with Caine delivering a more than dependable take on an elderly Jack Carter (even though the two-time Oscar-winning septuagenarian insists on differentiating between Carter and Brown in interviews – reminding us that the latter is not and never was a gangster). In fact, Caine gives the film a much-needed emotional resonance… particularly when the plot is predictable and its overall ethos is questionable. Barber’s direction is commendable mostly for its atmosphere. Aided by a superb soundtrack, the first half of the film sets up a fragile universe that can be very easily undermined from the inside, and when the thugs break through, you feel it. The sense of authenticity, so crucial here, where it is only realism that can bring something new to a tried and tested formula, fortunately shows itself in the mobile-phone-filmed introduction, depicting a gang initiation which ends in the arbitrary shooting of a single mother. We are thrown into the deep end of the inferno from the get-go, and we’re grateful for anybody that can even make an attempt at pulling us out. It’s good luck it turns out to be the sweet, bumbling, but also handy-with-a-pistol Mr Brown.
But for all its aims at realism and the depiction of social ills, the film is best enjoyed as a simple, perversely satisfying (as they all are) revenge thriller. The kids remain largely interchangeable, and any attempt at ambiguity and redemption is never even considered. This is fantasy fulfilment, pure and simple. The only thing that has changed is the setting.

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