Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Harry's Browned Off

There were only about a dozen people in the cinema, and most of them were aged pensioners. They were probably coming to see Michael Caine reprise his Get Carter role from 1971, which is really what Harry Brown is about.

The four-letter f and c words flew as our pensioners were reminded just how awful and lonely it is too be aged. The colours were muted browns, greens and greys, and there was that other affliction of old age, silence. But then they were there of their own free will.

Harry lives in one of those depressing English flatland estates. His wife is dying and his mate is terrified of drug-dealing thugs terrorising the estate. Harry used to be a Marine (served in Northern Ireland) but he put that behind him when he met Kath. Then she dies and his mate and chess partner, Len, dies too. But he doesn't just die; he's murdered, like my octogenarian father (above) was.

So far so OK. But now it all starts falling to pieces. Enter detective inspector Alice Frampton, played by the divine Emily Mortimer. She's a homicide detective but she almost bursts into tears upon having to give Harry the bad news about Len.

Accompanying her is the thickest detective sergeant you'll ever come across. The only way Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles) could have made it so far was, well, whatever it could have been we don't know because we aren't told. Maybe it has something to do with that plummy, stats-quoting chief he has. But all we're given is that he's a dumb-as-a-doornail cop and she's a feeling homicide detective. Hmn.

Harry, an ex-Marine cries and, for some reason, directors want to make Caine cry. He did it awfully in Carter and he does it awfully here. Carter should have got angry when he saw his brother's daughter being coerced into pornography. Brown should get angry when he hears about Len. Caine does icy very well, but he does tears awfully. Really awfully.

And surely if Harry left the Marines behind him, he would have put away all the old photos and medals? Then, when the changes come, the wife and mate dead, he brings them out again. Ritually. That's largely what film is all about. Ritual. Pictures. Just ask Mel Gibson when he's playing director. He's a master at it.

But no, Alice revisits this man and asks him about his medals and delivers the following clanger when she sees him replaying Bobby Fischer's unexpected Pirc defence against Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland. "You have no one to play with you, don't you?" As all students of Screenwriting 101 know, there must be about a hundred ways of implying the blatantly bloody obvious.

But it seems as if debut director Daniel Barber is so intent on out-Finchering David Fincher that he forgets about the details. There is a scene where Harry goes to purchase a gun that is so obscene that it surpasses Fincher, if that's anything to crow about, in that he makes it clear to us that the scariest monster on this planet is something that goes as human. What the old people thought I don't know. They were there of their own free will. Granted, it's not a scene you are likely to forget, if you ever bother to see the film.

And then there are Harry's physical abilities. How he, an emphysema sufferer in his late 70s, manages to suddenly turn a young assailant's knife on him - Marine training or not - has more to do with cinematic licence than "gritty" reality; and, being a chess player, he would surely not have left his fingerprints all over a Land Rover he "borrowed" from abovementioned monster (read: self-starring and -mutilated pornographic drug and gun dealer).

There could have been a slightly twee but mildly probable ending to this film. We are shown that Harry had a daughter who died when she was 13. So what if Harry finds a surrogate daughter in DI Frampton? These things happen, and there is nothing with controlled sentiment. But no, Harry has won his turf back, his right to walk through the re-painted, graffiti-less rail tunnel. And Alice has finally toughened up and walks away from her plummy boss's news briefing.

But it's too late. The middle game's details were overlooked. The match is lost because at least in Get Carter and Edge of Darkness (now on DVD and starring the said Gibson), we are reminded that - even in an unjust world - revenge and vigilantism still have consequences.

Signs of the Times

Local cynics might say that Gibson is merely reprising himself as some sort of Christian martyr in the last-mentioned film, which leads us to another issue of faith. Last week the Advertising Standards Authority decreed that it was alright for atheists to put up billboards saying "there's probably no god". What they should have done is question the atheists' lack of conviction or, perhaps more accurately, commitment. After all, what do they mean with there probably isn't a god? Surely they are absolutely sure? Or are they just covering their backsides "in case" they're wrong? God knows, I'm disappointed. Actually, I'm not sure he knows. Or cares. But it's something Carter had also dwelt upon. In a great little by-the-way, four-word interaction he meets an old Newcastle mate who now happens to work for an adversary. "Good God," the mate says. "Is he?" Carter snaps.

Equally bad, on a sign outside the Greenlane Presbyterian Church there was a sign that said something (mental note to self: make written notes to self) to this effect: Google does not have all the answers, beneath the usual photograph of a white Anglo-Saxon family, which presumably denotes sanctity. Then, on a separate line beneath it: "God!" Now what was that supposed to mean? Was it an exclamation that Yahoo and all the others deserve some credit too? Probably not. It was more likely intended to mean that God has all the answers or, along with Google, at least some of them. But it came out all wrong and maybe that's why it was taken down. Then again, if I had money I wouldn't bet on it. I mean the fact that the billboard was taken down.

But one thing is absolutely certain: both sides need a better PR person.

Neil Sonnekus

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