You wait all month for a review and then two come along at once!
Hello much neglected readers!
I’m not going to start yet another post with apologies for absence, but I will say this: turns out at med school they expect you to do some work. Who’d have thought?
Anyhoo, to make up for my startling lack of posts I’m bringing you a double feature of reviews. Two movies which at first seem pretty different but are linked by some common themes. And the fact that they are both pretty damn good.
This was a film I’d heard of but never really found out about. Michael Caine is usually a safe bet though so I gave it a whirl.
On the back of the box it says “contains scenes of violence, hard drug use and strong language.” They aren’t kidding. All of that takes place within the first five minutes of the film, with films shot on shaky hand-held cameras to mimic the paradoxically named “Happy Slapping” videos.
Perhaps I should backtrack a bit; Harry Brown takes place on a generic estate completely taken over by a gang of what the news like to refer to as “Youths” who are now terrorising the residents. There are some strong performances amongst the younger cast, including Jack O’ Connell (AKA Cook from Skins) and Ben Drew, who really is chilling as the sociopathic gang leader Noel. The big name here though is Michael Caine as the eponymous Brown, and he is just as strong as everyone would expect him to be. Emily Mortimer also plays well as the slightly stereotypical but nonetheless realistic female DI who is ignored by both her superiors and subordinates. None of the characters are given distinct back stories, instead we are given clues to their pasts and left to make up the rest for ourselves. For example, we are told Mortimer’s character chose to work on the troubled estate when she could have had a much easier job, but when you couple that with the opening scene you can formulate your own theory as to why she wants to work here. (I’m being deliberately cryptic to avoid spoilers, but if you’re interested drop me a comment.)
This stark narrative style is crucial to fit in with the realism of the movie. There is a very bare score, only at a couple of key dramatic moments, otherwise the sound you hear is being played out on screen. The performances are rough, not actually coming across as “performances” but almost as if this was a documentary. I think that’s what makes the film affecting, the fact that even though it isn’t a true story, it could be.
The plot isn’t exactly shocking, as Brown loses everything at the hands of the gangs he decided to take a stand, but at the same time nothing feels predictable. The aforementioned violence is also skilfully used, not in any way gratuitous and again reflecting a realism that in the end makes the films far more frightening than any drawn out horror could.
Not in any way an uplifting film, but I would definitely recommend Harry Brown as a great depiction of what the politicians really mean when they say “Broken Britain.”
Perhaps not a natural double feature with a film about British gang culture, but both Harry Brown and The Pianist explore themes of oppression, fear and the senselessness of random violence that make them quite ripe for comparison.
Like Harry Brown, The Pianist is a very minimalist film. The score is sparingly used, mainly consisting of (obviously) a few movements of piano score. This film is also strongly focussed on the realism, made all the more distressing by the fact that this is a true story.
The movie tells of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman and his ordeal during the Nazi occupation. I think the most powerful message in the film is the irrational nature of the Nazi violence towards Jews. It seems impossible that they got away with such random acts of violence, yet we understand that there was very little the Jewish population could do to stand up against such vicious hatred. The scenes I found the most distressing involved random members of a line up being picked out and shot. Imagine living in those kind of conditions, where you could be killed at any moment for absolutely no reason.
Adrien Brody is very strong as Szpilman (well, he did win an Oscar) at times carrying the whole movie alone with little or no dialogue. Special mention has to be given to Thomas Kretschmann also, as SS officer Wilm Hosenfeld. The counterpart between him and Szpilman towards the end of the film is perfect in its symplicity, and the role reversal at the very end is a great twist on everything we’ve witnessed so far.
A lot of movies of this nature are described as “harrowing” but I think The Pianist is one of the few films which actually deserves that description. The first half is particularly hard to watch, but never self-indulgent. Brody charts Szpilman’s decline well and at times it is hard to understand why he would want to carry on, but there is a turning point about half way through the film, where we see that he has survived this far and is going to continue fighting in the face of utter hopelessness, which gives what could be a soul-destroying movie a surprisingly uplifting message.
I think my enjoyment of the movie was somewhat hampered by my poor historical knowledge, and a couple of times I got a bit lost, particularly when two very similar looking blonde heroines got involved, but this movie is more about the overall impact than the details. It is constantly compared to Schindler’s List which I (shockingly) haven’t seen, but the muted palette of colours did draw some comparisons even in my unenlightened mind, particularly when some bright red trams appeared towards the end.
Both The Pianist and Harry Brown are stories of men who lose everything. Both our protagonists are standing up against extreme forms of what is essentially bullying, although obviously to a far greater extent in the former. I would say that Harry Brown is actually the sadder of the two films, because while Szpilman gains a shred of his old life back at the end, Brown is left with nothing and no one. Perhaps the fundamental difference is that while Szpilmanvis just trying to survive, Brown is driven by revenge, which is in itself destructive.
The power of both films is in their realism. The barren cinematography and sound hammer this home, leaving the viewer unsettled in the knowledge that the events of The Pianist are true, and those of Harry Brown could be.