Thursday, September 2, 2010

Raising Caine: Michael Caine in Harry Brown

The late film critic Pauline Kael once said that Michael Caine, in acting terms, is what Jean Renoir was in directing terms. What she meant, of course, is that their technique is invisible. "The goal of Caine's technique seems to dissolve all vestiges of  'technique,'" she wrote of his role as the aging English professor in Lewis Gilbert's Educating Rita (1983). "He lets nothing get between you and the character he plays." That's been true in many roles over a very long career.

Early on, Caine brought you snugly into the secret world of intelligence officer Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1965) and Funeral in Berlin (1966), he calmly revealed the manipulative womanizer in Alfie (1966) and aptly displayed the bravura of his adventurer in The Man Who Would Be King (1975). In his middle period, Michael Caine still varied the parts he played, but the verve he displayed was more subdued. Whether he was the quietly ambiguous psychiatrist in Dressed to Kill (1980), or the creepy sex peddler in Mona Lisa (1986), Caine created a relaxed prescence whereby his charm (as in Educating Rita, or Woody Allen's 1986 film Hannah and Her Sisters) could draw you in. On other occasions, his comfort in revealing the impacted rage of a gutted soul (as in Mona Lisa) would fascinate you even as the character he portrayed repelled you. Although he has definitely made some bad choices over the years (Blame it on Rio, Jaws: The Revenge), the transparency of his style of acting hasn't tarnished him, as it has some other actors. The reason for that just might be that Michael Caine doesn't suffer embarrassment for his choices because for him acting is as much a job as it is an art.

In the 2009 vigilante drama, Harry Brown, which was released on DVD in North America on Tuesday, you wouldn't be wrong in saying there's very little art in Caine's performance as a geriatric avenger. (It's probably the first time in movie history that we have a vigilante with emphysema.) But while the picture is artfully dour, kitchen-sink realism that's spent too much time in the sink, Michael Caine does give Harry Brown what little class it possesses. Brown is an elderly, retired former Royal Marine who did his time fighting the IRA in Northern Ireland. In the present, though, he's fighting off his grief over losing his wife to a long illness. He's also bearing witness to the violence of his crime-infested council estate in South London.

After his wife's funeral, while playing chess with his best friend, Leonard (David Bradley), he learns that Leonard has been bullied by the gangs of young drug dealers in the public underpass. While Leonard hopes to defend himself with an old bayonet, the next day, he is found murdered by investigating detectives, played by Emily Mortimer and Charlie Creed-Miles. Some of the suspected gang members are arrested, but the police unfortunately can't make the charges stick because no one will talk and they are forced to let them go. After Leonard's funeral, Harry himself gets accosted near the underpass but his former skills as a marine kick in. He turns the weapon on his assailant and kills him. Upon doing this, Brown begins a mission to clean out the crime at the estate while the police begin to suspect a vigilante in their midst.

Director Daniel Barber (whose previous work was the 2007 short film, The Tonto Woman, based on an Elmore Leonard short story and nominated for an Oscar) is too civilized to turn the screws on the audience to stir up a blood lust in the way other revenge dramas like Death Wish (1974), or The Brave One (2007) did. But Barber does little to dramatize the rot that has set in. He simply puts it on the screen with the hope that our revulsion towards it alone will suffice. (In one scene, when Harry goes to purchase a gun, he visits the creepiest grow-op you've ever seen, where human life is so debased that you wonder how these severely doped out proprietors could even find the energy to plant a seed.) Since Barber doesn't show us how the organized criminal element thrives in that neighbourhood (he merely concentrates on the violence the gang perpetuates), or manipulate our desire for vengeance, the film ends up becoming dramatically inert. Its grimness ultimately weighs on you like a fungus. Fortunately, Caine's performance doesn't. He plays Brown not as an avenging angel, or as our hero to clean up the scum, but instead he's a man with few options left to survive. Upon shooting one gang member, you can see that he gets little pleasure out of it; rather, he reminds the dealer that if had he done just one humane deed, Brown might have spared him.

Caine's work in Harry Brown is tuned subtly to the needs of the role because there's no self-righteousness to define him (as it did Charles Bronson in Death Wish). And that's what gives the part some human texture despite what little character Caine is given to play. Late in the picture, Mortimer's detective reminds Brown that he's no longer in Northern Ireland. But Brown says to her, without any air of speechifying, that at least in Northern Ireland he was up against people who had a cause, the havoc in South London is being done by people out for "entertainment."

Harry Brown also has little in common with the violent gangster Caine played in Get Carter (1971), where he was also on a path of vengeance over the death of his brother. In this picture, Michael Caine is playing a man with too many regrets and very little solace. When he sets out on his path to kill, he's neither transformed into a killing machine, or destroyed by his actions. Harry Brown, in the end, is just looking for another day to play a quiet game of chess.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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