Michael Caine says to look past the violence in ‘Harry Brown’

With its mix of minor-key character study and guns a-blazin’ action, “Harry Brown” provides a powerful platform for two-time Oscar winner Michael Caine to play off the iconography of his previous characters, such as Jack Carter in “Get Carter” and Harry Palmer in “The Ipcress File.”

But “Harry Brown” is much more than just a homage to Caine’s double-barreled past.

“For me, it … is not a violent film, it’s a film about violence,” the 77-year-old Caine said recently.

As “Harry Brown” opens, Caine’s titular character, an elderly widower, sheepishly takes the long way around a pedestrian underpass to avoid the hooligans who hang about its entrance. Later, he watches helplessly from his apartment window at the violent crimes in the street below. Circumstances eventually spark him to set out on a murderous vigilante rampage.

Although the movie certainly features scenes of violent retribution in the extreme, it also has a strong social consciousness, according to Caine.

“It appealed to me because I think it put people on notice that we have a whole section of young people who have been neglected by society in one way or another,” he said. “And for me, the thing is, we should be educating them and not sending them to prison. They’re very young. When I was a boy and we were in gangs, it was just fists and alcohol. Now it’s drugs, knives and guns. And it’s far, far more dangerous than when I was a young man.”

Caine’s connection to the character took on added dimensions only as the film moved toward shooting. Caine himself is, like the character, a military veteran. The production was scouting locations in a housing project in the London district of Elephant and Castle when everyone came to a realization that they were going to be shooting in the very neighborhood where Caine grew up.

“This is where I come from, literally,” Caine explained. “In that estate there is a mural on the wall with me on it. And Charlie Chaplin, who came from there as well.”

Perhaps the most obvious parallel to “Harry Brown” is the recent Clint Eastwood film “Gran Torino,” in which a similarly on-in-years widower fights back against an out-of-control youth gang. If nothing else, both films feature as their American poster art the rather startling image of an older man wielding a firearm.

“I have to say, I don’t think the films are really that similar,” said Daniel Barber, a veteran commercial director who is making his feature debut with “Harry Brown.” “It’s very easy for people to say it’s a British ‘Gran Torino,’ but in truth it’s not. ‘Gran Tornio’ is about racial issues in America, and that’s not what ‘Harry Brown’ is about at all.”

For his own part, Caine said he was surprised that people drew a connection between his role in “Harry Brown” and that of Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino.” As well, Caine has been shocked by how often reviews and commentary on the film have referenced his 1971 film “Get Carter,” a tough revenge picture in which Caine’s character was avenging the death of his brother and that was seen as a key influence on many recent British crime films.

“It puzzles me a little bit,” Caine said. “Jack Carter was a very hard, very fit, young professional killer. And here I am a very old, very innocent old-age pensioner living in the projects. So I’m surprised. It didn’t gel with me at all. I’ve played guys who killed people in pictures, but then no one read it like Jack Carter.”

When the film was released during a heated political season in Britain last fall — where it went on to become one of the top five British films of the year at the box office — it touched off a round of debate from both sides of the political fence regarding the rising wave of violent crimes committed by younger and younger offenders.

Writing in the Evening Standard, political commentator Matthew d’Ancona said the film had “genuine social and political content” and “deserves to be treated as a commentary on contemporary mores as well as a regular cinematic experience.”

Critic Dave Calhoun for Time Out London called “Harry Brown” a “hateful vigilante flick,” while Sight & Sound reviewer Trevor Johnston added, “By setting itself up as a virtual state-of-the-union address it only draws attention to its own petty, embittered vacuity.”

For the filmmakers, controversy was not unexpected.

“We were reasonably apolitical in terms of the movie itself,” said producer Kris Thykier. “We wanted to shoot an urban western, a decent man at odds with his environment who has to take the law into his own hands. We never intended for the movie itself to be political; we just recognized that the movie could become a touch paper for a broader conversation.”

However, Caine recently appeared alongside Conservative Party leader David Cameron in support of a proposed civilian service program to give support to troubled youths. Director Barber, on the other hand, seemed bothered with how what he called the “middle-class intelligentsia” had responded to the film’s depiction of youth crime.

“In a way, I knew the film would divide opinion. I knew a lot of the middle class and upper class would find it a very uncomfortable subject to broach,” Barber said. “And so when people say, ‘Oh, it’s not real,’ or ‘Oh, Britain’s not like that,’ well, Britain is a lot more than Merchant Ivory films or films about posh people in the ‘60s like ‘An Education.’

“The reason the movie proves to be so very popular with normal people is [because] it touched a nerve.”