I’m a fan of Eddie Izzard. Especially his early work. Lately he’s been depressing and at times down right insulting. But anyway, in one of his sketches he explains that British films are generally dramatic in a sort of subdued way. I’d never really seen the films he was referencing though. I’ve Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Layer Cake, Hot Fuzz and the like. So imagine my surprise last Saturday when I sat down to watch Harry Brown. Or rather, is Harry Brown.
You see, Eddie Izzard describes British films thusly:
…we’ve got known in Britain for making the smaller films, you know. Recently, we’ve been pulling out of that into the more “Trainspotting” area, but the smaller films, they’re kind of “a room with a view with a staircase and a pond”-type movies. Films with very fine acting, but the drama is rather sort of subsued and – subsumed or – a word like that. Sub- something or another. You know, just folded in and everything’s people opening doors.
“Oh, I’m – oh, what? Well, I’ve – oh.”
“What is it, Sebastian? I’m arranging matches.”
“Well, I – I thought you – … I’d better go.”
“Yes, I think you’d better had.” ( sings morose melody )
But these are not the British films I had seen. I got a sense of this in 28 Days Later, and some others but never mind. Harry Brown tricked me. I was in the mood for a mindless explody film full of wonton death and destruction and not so much dialogue and drama. Harry Brown seemed to fit the bill.
It stars Sir Michael Caine, whom I enjoyed in such films as The Italian Job, not the one with Edward Norton mind you, The Eagle Has Landed, The Prestige, a fantastic flick by the way, and a series of films about some creep who dresses up with pointy ears and talks in a gravelly voice. So this was good. I like Michael Caine. Then it’s listed in the thriller genre on Netflix. Fair enough. But, here’s the kicker. See that cover art at the top of this article? First we have the title Michael Caine is Harry Brown. That sort of wording is generally reserved for Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Dame movies. The epitome of mindless action and over the top explosions. Then we have him doing the ever popular walk away slowly while a building blows up pose. Awesome.
All of these indicators point to a trailer with a voice over that should have went something like, “In a world where druggies control the streets, one man has had enough. This summer Michael Caine is Harry Brown.”And in fact the release trailer does follow that line of thinking.
Then the movie started. No big helicopters and fireballs. Instead we get a very disturbing couple of scenes that do an excellent of setting the tone for the remainder of the film. A group of kids are in a some sort of tunnel giving their newest comrade his first hit on what appears to the untrained eye to be a crack pipe. The kid is then giving a gun and he hopes on the back of a dirt bike. They boys ride out of the tunnel into a park and shoot a woman who was pushing a stroller through the park. The boys make an effort to run away and promptly get hit by a semi.
What follows is an hour and forty-five minutes of subdued drama accented with gritty, awkward violence. Caine plays a retiree, called a pensioner across the pond, who recently lost his wife to some sort of illness, or possibly old age. It’s never explicitly stated and isn’t really relevant anyway. The last remaining person in his life aside from the local bartender is his dear friend Lenny played by David Bradley whom you know as Mr. Filch the Hogwarts caretaker. Caine, that is to say Harry, and Lenny play chess in their favorite pub and complain about the increasingly violent local youths until one day a line is crossed.
Then Harry decides it’s time to take matters into his own hands. But John McClane he is not. Sure he was in the Royal Marines in World War II, but that was 60 years ago. Now he’s an asthmatic living in Britain. The land where not even the cops carry guns. Lucky for us he does end up acquiring a few guns and he turns out to be very proficient after a rocky start.
So is there a scene where Harry flicks his cigarette into a trail of gasoline and slowly walks away? No. There is an explosion, but Harry isn’t casually walking away. He’s hightailing it to the hospital in a stolen truck in order to save a girl. So is there a big chase scene where he goes careening through sewer tunnels while bullets bounce off his mirrors? No.
Is the film teeming with senseless violence. Yes, but not in fun and exciting way. It’s all carried out by the youths and is a clear social commentary instead of explosion and guns for explosion and guns’ sake. What we have here is A Clockwork Orange from the perspective of the drunk tramp’s angry friend.
So did I hate this movie? No. In fact, had I been in another mindset I’m certain I would have loved this movie. Caine is still at the top of his game and he pulls out all the stops to give us a gut wrenching performance. The story is well crafted. It goes beyond the Hollywood clichés and makes Harry Brown a living breathing human being, not a roid raged killing machine. He makes mistakes. He takes his lumps. And he remains true to himself and his friends. When he finds himself loaded with drug money he doesn’t go out and buy out the local armory or take off for the French Rivera. He anonymously drops it in the church coffers. He’s not even overly religious. This isn’t the Anglican Boondock Saints. Michael Caine truly is Harry Brown.
The movie feels like a rally cry for retirees of sorts. A Twisted Sister banner held against a culture that in all likelihood doesn’t exist. My grandfather turns 90 this week and he has all but lost contact with modern society. His world view is based solely on the 7 o’clock news and all they give him is a bit of the ultraviolence in an effort to boost ratings. There were about half a dozen murders at the hands of the youth in the film and while an accurate time frame is never established I don’t see this as a reflection of reality. According to the Guardian UK, in the 12 months while Harry Brown was filmed there were 648 murders in all of England and Wales.
But where the real commentary lies is in the depiction of the London police force. These under armed fools are running around with their heads shut firmly where the sun will never reach them. There is one detective who sees the truth and is promptly ignored. Her supervisor chooses a blundering tactic and busts a gang that is little more than an unorganized group of youths playing with guns and smoking the product their supposed to be selling. This misstep leads to a riot and a rather unsatisfactory ending for the coppers. They manage to come up smelling of roses in the whole affair. Not being from London myself I can’t say that this is an accurate depiction of the London police, though Hot Fuzz does seem to follow this plot line quite well.
Of course we don’t watch action movies for their firm grip on reality. So while the action falls far, far below Hollywood standards it was enough to hook me. I found myself cheering Caine on, though I yelled at him more for his poor planning. The ending was extremely satisfying in a dramatic way.
Writer Gary Young and director Daniel Barber are completely unknown but I’ll be curious to see how their careers develop. If this movie is any indication we can expect more solid filmmaking in the future. This really is a great dramatic tragedy in classic British style. Just don’t watch this expecting to see summer blockbuster action.