16 November 2009

The Caine Scrutiny

Britain, Britain, Britain! It's been a pretty good time for British cinema, these last few years- we've had the excellent In Bruges and Is Anybody There? in very recent memory, and of course Oscar glory for Slumdog Millionaire back in February. This post covers the latest cinematic output to come charging into multiplexes, one of which looks likely to repeat Slumdog's Oscar success next year and the other being a bit more like a Daily Mail reader's wet-dream. This is Harry Brown and An Education. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion on here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

I'm starting with Harry Brown because what could be more British than that? It's got Michael Caine in it! As regular readers will know, Michael Caine is my all-time favourite actor and I've never seen him give a performance I didn't like. OK, he might have been in bad films, but he's always watchable, whether he's in On Deadly Ground or The Cider House Rules. Here he's the eponymous pensioner whose wife has recently died, leaving him alone living in a rough neighbourhood. So far, so Gran Torino, but when Harry's best friend Leonard is murdered while trying to defend himself from the estate's hellish yobs, Harry gets mad as hell and he ain't gonna take it anymore. So naturally, he gets hold of a gun and turns vigilante on the chavs.

It's sort of typical for a revenge movie that the main character will have slightly flimsy motivation, and that gorehounds will doze through the bloodless overture to a film and wake up when violence starts occurring. What such gorehounds should reckon on at this point is Michael Caine, whose performance is utterly believable and compelling throughout. Harry certainly doesn't start the film as a hardman- indeed, he's afraid to go into the underpass where the yobs hang out on his own, even when he gets a call from the hospital about his wife's condition worsening. We're then shown that his only remaining relationship is with Leonard, played briefly but memorably by David Bradley, and when Leonard's killed, it still takes a while for Harry to go completely out to lunch. This is a fine piece of tension building on director Daniel Barber's part, and Caine's performance matches the material excellently, but it's a shame that such subtlety isn't really employed with everything else in the film.

Once hoodies start turning up dead, a pair of CID officers get on the case, but these are very poorly developed characters. The usually reliable Emily Mortimer has little to work with and just proves slightly annoying. Moreover, the chavs are cartoonishly monstrous, which slightly undermines the social commentary angle of the violence. Alright, so I'm sure there are young people who really are as bad as Noel or Marky in this film, but at the same time, there are many who are pushed to do anti-social things because they're victims themselves- broken families, poor education etc. The film isn't entirely interested in showing that angle, so it actually becomes a chav-sploitation film, to some extent. Barber portrays a broken Britain that can be fixed by violence, so the message of the film becomes entirely too dubious.

It's probably easier to turn your brain off while watching Harry Brown if you're more right wing than I am in your political views. While there's no doubt that these characters deserve the treatment they get at Harry's hands, it's sure to proliferate quite sweeping generalisations about a sector of society that needs to be rehabilitated more effectively than it is at present. All context aside, it's a film that's similar to Gran Torino in more ways than one- a strong central performance makes it what it is, and the performances and supporting characters just let it down. This makes for much more uncomfortable viewing than that film too, but it's worth a look if you have a strong stomach and enjoy Michael Caine's films. If only the latter is true, then Is Anybody There? is still the best film he's made this year.

Harry Brown is Michael Caine's 110th film, and on the opposite end of the spectrum to this screen legend is Carey Mulligan, whose breakout performance in An Education has her being heralded as the Next Big Thing by the type of people who like to predict what the Next Big Thing is going to be. Most famous before this for playing Sally Sparrow in the Tennant-lite Doctor Who adventure Blink, Mulligan plays Jenny, a teenage girl who's utterly bored by the monotony of suburban London in the early 1960s, being pressed to work hard to go to Oxford by her father. Enter David, played by Peter Sarsgaard, a man more than twice Jenny's age who utterly bedazzles the young schoolgirl, seducing her away from her studies with his devil-may-care lifestyle and expensive gifts.

The words "coming of age tale" are bandied around a lot, and have rather bizarrely been attached to the likes of American Pie, a film which had two sequels (well, two that count, anyway) after which none of the characters had gotten any more mature. An Education is fundamentally a coming of age tale about a young girl who learns a hard lesson about the world. More than that, it's about all the things people aren't saying- be they secrets and lies, or the answers to valid questions about what we're doing in life. Jenny is naive and wide-eyed but she nevertheless holds a sharp cynicism about her prospects- her father desperately browbeats her into studying hard so she can go to Oxford, but once the prospect of marrying her off comes around, he encourages her to take a shortcut to the security he wants for her instead. As much as it contrasts with the more phoney coming of age films, it's never entirely po-faced, and screenwriter Nick Hornby gives the film a genial and enjoyable sense of humour.

That humour is best exemplified in Jenny's father, who is played extraordinarily well by Alfred Molina. The man is never more than a couple of seconds away from a rant about all the money he's spending on his daughter, and his narrow-sighted outlook provides for some of the film's funniest moments. But behind that, there's a beautiful moment where his soul is exposed and we can really believe he loves this girl, his daughter. The other standout performance is of course from Carey Mulligan. The rumblings of an Oscar for Best Actress are certainly not unwarranted, and Mulligan makes a remarkably convincing schoolgirl, given how she's actually in her 20s. Much easier to believe than Megan Fox, to say the very least. Her naivety is capitalised upon by Peter Sarsgaard's David, who's creepier in today's context than he perhaps might have been if this film had been released contemporaneously with the period it's actually set in. In the 21st century context, it would be easy to be freaked out from the off by David waiting around outside Jenny's school in his car, but Sarsgaard carries off a quite effortless charm in the role, which makes for excellent drama once his suave veneer wears away.

If there's an issue with seeing An Education in cinemas, it's that you have to go out of your way to see it, for an experience that isn't distinctly cinematic. It's a shame it's playing in so few cinemas, and most will wait until DVD to see this. The bottom line is that the DVD won't be out until next year, and I'm glad I got to see one of the best films of 2009 in 2009, rather than six months from now. Carey Mulligan really is going to be a star, and Alfred Molina joins my select club of great actors who simply aren't in enough films these days. It would be easier to dismiss the film's message as one from a simpler time, but it's a story about a girl who becomes a woman all too quickly. In this age of dubious female role models and teenage pregnancies, when else has it ever been more relevant? Funny, gripping and very watchable indeed.


If I pair up 2012 and New Moon in the next post, it's possible that the entire blog will not only explode, but implode, with my rage, so perhaps it's best to keep those two separate. Nevertheless, you can be certain that one of those two will be coming up next, and that neither of them will be as good or as watchable as Harry Brown or An Education. So if you've seen the films discussed here, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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