Sunday, 23 April 2017

"Harry Brown" (2009): that rare thing - a classic right-wing British film

When a DVD of Harry Brown arrived in the post shortly before its release in 2009, I glanced briefly at the accompanying bumph...

...and knew what to expect. A National Lottery-funded film about an old soldier living on a bleak London council estate terrorised by a violent, drug-dealing, multi-ethnic youth gang would be bound to involve a traditional left-wing narrative. No doubt the old soldier and the gang would overcome an initial mutual distrust by realising that they were both victims of society: a lifetime in the army, we would discover, had rendered the old boy unfit for modern life, while a lack of societal compassion had condemned the youths to a brief, useless, chaotic existence. Eventually, the ex-serviceman would form a touching friendship with one of the young thugs, and the gang would turn out to be a pretty decent bunch of kids, just aching for the chance to become brain-surgeons, human rights lawyers or “community organisers”. I slotted the disc into the DVD player without enthusiasm - and was delighted to have all my assumptions disproved: it turned out be a gloriously right-wing vigilante revenge thriller, extolling the virtues of courage, honour, duty, discipline, steadfastness, loyalty and justice (the genuine, as opposed to the “social”, variety).

The title character, superbly played by Michael Caine, is a decorated former Royal Marine who saw action in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. One day Harry sets out from his neat little council flat to visit his wife, who’s dying in hospital. Scared to use an underpass “owned” by the local thugs, he goes the long way round: by the time Harry reaches the hospital, she’s dead. Shortly afterwards, his only friend is murdered by members of the gang. The authorities have essentially abandoned the estate to criminals, and the police seemingly can’t bring the killers to justice. Harry gets drunk after his chum’s funeral, and, when one of the gang tries to rob him at knifepoint, kills his attacker using the yob’s own knife.  This gives him an idea: despite being a septuagenarian suffering from emphysema, he decides that, if the state can’t - or won’t - dispense justice, he’ll do the job himself.

The key scene (see above) involves a visit by Harry to the home of a local drug-dealer, from whom he hopes to buy a gun. In the house (which looks like something out of Hieronymus Bosch) a semi-comatose girl appears to be dying of an overdose. Harry tells the dealer - portrayed as a repellent demon by Sean Harris - and his henchman that they really should take the girl to hospital. The ensuing argument inevitably ends in violence: the drug dealer holds a gun to Harry’s head, pulls the trigger - and the gun jams. Harry shoots him, and as the psychotic criminal lies sprawled amidst his marijuana plants, his bare torso covered in tattoos, his brain addled by drugs, with a bullet in his stomach, Harry - a picture of orderliness, neatly-coiffed and wearing a suit and tie and a symbolically black coat - remarks: “You failed to maintain your weapon, son.” There’s evidently a price to be paid for an undisciplined existence - just as there is for a life spent selfishly satisfying one’s animal appetites while refusing to acknowledge any sort of duty to others. Just before polishing off the wretch, Harry quietly explains, “You should have called an ambulance for the girl.” (Naturally, Harry rounds off an eventful evening by driving her to a hospital.)

While the idea of a man in his seventies - no matter how fit - running around a dystopian London bumping off well-armed young hooligans is undoubtedly far-fetched, the makers avoid the Hollywood cliché of having a superannuated action-movie star pumped full of botox performing inconceivably athletic feats which would finish off someone half their age. By way of contrast, when another night of vengeful mayhem ends with the gang’s leader in Harry’s sights, the old man drops his gun, clutches his chest, and collapses, only to wake up in hospital. (What I found far more unlikely was the idea that someone as intelligent and self-controlled as the chess-playing former soldier would have mismanaged his affairs so badly as to end up retiring to a repugnant dump. It’s a relief to learn that the brutalist South London estate where the film was shot was demolished in 2014, despite objections from the Design Council.)

Critical reaction to Harry Brown was mixed. The Times thought it "morally and politically repugnant”, while the Sunday Times - blithely ignoring the skilful direction and taut scriptwriting - despised it, awarding it a single star. The Daily Mail, on the other hand, described it as “a film that really matters…Brilliant!” Even The Guardian was refreshingly uncensorious, and appreciative of the riveting central performance: “What a tremendous role for Caine. I can't imagine anyone else carrying it off.” Indeed. It did well at the British box office: not, obviously, as well as the outstanding Gran Torino, the Clint Eastwood film released the previous year, to which it bears some similarity - in it, Eastwood plays a cantankerous and openly racist widowed Korean War veteran who takes on the ethnic youth gang which is terrorising his similarly ethnic neighbours.

One of the great mysteries of modern cinema is why, when audiences regularly respond enthusiastically to films whose values are broadly conservative, the industry keeps churning out left-liberal propaganda, most of which fails dismally at the box office. But the greatest mystery surrounding “Harry Brown” is how the makers managed to secure £1m of National Lottery funding - did the largesse-dispensing quangocrats not realise they were subsidising a conservative classic?

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