Michael Caine is having a stellar year. After appearing in the most crowd-drawing of blockbusting money spinners, The Dark Knight, in 2008, he has eased back into his part-time role as patron to the British independent cinema sector, with two roles that are testament to his real talent.
Back in May, he appeared in low-key drama Is Anybody There? as Clarence, an aging, dementia-suffering magician. Now, he stars in Harry Brown, another small-budgeted indie, this time a chilling thriller from first-time director Daniel Barber. Ostensibly billed as a ‘modern urban western’ by the creative and publicity teams, Harry Brown is a more complex melange of a film, just as much a showcase for Barber’s versatility as Caine’s acting.
The film grabs its plot from the headlines, using the current moral panic of youths, yobs and druggies on council estates as its foundation. Harry Brown is an old aged pensioner living on an East London estate with a particular problem. After his good friend Len (David Bradley) is brutally murdered, and with no effective help coming from the local police force, Harry decides to take matters into his own hands, excavating in the process long-buried memories from his years as a Royal Marine in Northern Ireland.
Starting off as what seems to be a socially-rooted, naturalistic piece soon gives way to a more kaleidoscopic approach. The film’s opening sequence is shot using a mobile phone camera, held in the palm of a lad wiling away the time by riding around a public park on a motorbike, firing off pistol pot-shots at passers-by. It’s a visceral sequence, impeccably created, but it is only the start.
Throughout, the film shifts style, from kitchen sink dreariness, to tension-filled, expressionistic thriller, to wide-canvas, allegorical tragedy – all tempered by a dark, self-effacing humour about the absurdity of the situation. That it never feels too jarring shows the strength of the production team, that is just as comfortable with the dull browns and greys of Harry’s lonely daily routine, as it is with the shocking, cartoon-style greens of hidden cannabis forests, and messed-up characters who use pistol barrels as make-shift crack pipes.
It is undeniable that the film takes inspiration from the Western genre, especially the morally-murky revisionism of the 1960s. The landscape of the estate is not too far from a post-Civil War America, with unruly mobs – with no place in society – terrorising the locals without much significant reprisal from the uncommitted lawmakers (who, here, are Wire-style bureaucracy-bound, out-gunned suits, led by do-gooder Emily Mortimer). It even adapts the Western’s iconic use of geography, creating a tight interiority as the action moves from estate, to the local pub, and back again, with a nearby subway – strewn with graffiti and used as a hoodie hangout – used as a recurring symbol for the gangs’ grip on local residents.
Harry, therefore, is the unassuming antihero, pushed to action, tasked with cleaning up the dirty town. Far from a Dirty Harry, Brown is emphysema-ridden, slow, and tormented by his past, his prowess only coming from a combination of observation, surprise and downright luck.
This recontextualisation is particularly well-managed, and is played perfectly by Caine, as the old man’s military past, suppressed for decades, is slowly brought back to the surface. Caine needs no make-up miracles to look weathered by age, and succeeds with an internalised, minimal approach to the character. This makes small embellishments – a squareness of frame, an instinctive flourish of self-defence, or a creaky-jointed tactical crouch – all the more effective, and slightly chilling. Most remarkable being a half-gloating, half-twisted flashback admonishment of a careless victim, delivered with a clipped mock-officer accent, “You have failed to maintain your weapon, sir!”
As a wildly stylised thriller that obsesses over its protagonist, it is expected to find one-dimensional supporting characters. And it’s true, as the scallywags are mostly caricatures, including a boisterous, foul-mouthed dealer, a cocky, foul-mouthed rent-boy, and an authority-defying, foul-mouthed chap whose defining feature is his row of gold teeth.
However, Harry Brown‘s key problem is its sociological content, which can be (and has been) all too easily usurped for a ‘Broken Britain’ agenda. For its part, it adds nothing to the discourse of urban crime, violence, and the issues revolving around delinquency, and its basic narrative seems to advocate unsparing vigilantism, helped in no small part by an unsound, all-too-consummate conclusion that helps to dissipate the film’s amassed ambiguity and complexity.
This troubling mis-step threatens to derail the whole exercise, and could obscure the qualities – both subtle and broad – of the film as a work. It effectively sidelines its thought-provoking, discussion-stimulating aspects, in favour of a crowd-pleasing ending.
It is frustrating, as Harry Brown is, for the most part, one of the most original, stylistically-assured films to come out this year, and is a deeply impressive, distinctive showcase for its newcomer director, and canonised star.