“This is not a violent film,” insists Michael Caine. “It’s a film about violence.”
The 77-year-old English actor is speaking of “Harry Brown,” which stars Caine — Sir Michael, if you like — as a hard-pressed widower living in a bleak London public-housing complex plagued by drug dealers and vicious hoods.
When his best friend is killed by gang members, Harry — a working-class bloke trained in the Royal Marines, not dissimilar to the working-class Caine, who fought in the British army during the Korean War — takes justice into his own hands. As one character puts it, he becomes “a vigilante pensioner.”
“A reluctant vigilante,” adds Caine.
“The way I play the vigilante, it’s the vigilante as victim, not as perpetrator. His whole vigilantism is a thing of last resort. Harry is old, he has emphysema, he’s dying, his best friend’s been killed, his wife has died, and so it’s the end of his life, really.
“This is his final act, to avenge his friend.”
“Harry Brown,” a film of emotional intensity punctuated with flashes of intense violence, fared well at the box office after opening in the United Kingdom in November. But its depiction of rampant thuggery, and its indictment of liberal social policies and a hobbled police and justice system, polarized the press, Caine says.
“The movie critics divided themselves politically in the papers,” he says. “One paper, a socialist paper, ignored the thing entirely. ...
“We made the movie as a sort of warning, saying that ‘Clockwork Orange’ is here, and then the London Times called it ‘odious,’ which was upsetting, because the people who read the Times are the people we wanted to get to, who could do something about it. . . . The most powerful people in England were the ones who created the odor in the first place.”
Caine, speaking from New York a few days before last week’s elections in his homeland — where one of the debating points was about the growth of violent crime among the young — grew up in the Elephant and Castle district of London, only a few blocks from the infamous Heygate Estate, where “Harry Brown” is set.
“When I read the script I recognized myself,” he says. “It’s about the sort of people that I was ... and it’s literally where I come from.”
“Harry Brown” was directed by Daniel Barber, a Brit nominated for an Oscar in 2008 for his short-form adaptation of an Elmore Leonard Western story. The “Harry Brown” screenplay came from Gary Young, who grew up in similarly gritty urban environs in the north of England. Emily Mortimer stars as the detective inspector leading the investigation into the death of Harry’s friend.
“There was another paper that said this film exaggerated things for commercial purposes,” Caine gripes, “but of course when we researched the script with the police, we had to calm it right down and throw things out. Otherwise, no one would have believed us.
“It is a lot worse than it seems, and it is a lot worse than we have portrayed it. The problem is that a lot of people who saw it thought that we’d exaggerated. There’s tremendous misunderstanding about the whole thing.”
Mortimer’s character, albeit well-meaning, isn’t effective in bringing the young criminals to account. The scenes between Caine and Mortimer have a tense but sympathetic dynamic.
Although it’s the first time Caine has worked with the English actress, “I’ve known her since she was a baby,” he says. “I was good friends with her father, John Mortimer,” the barrister-turned-best-selling-author of the “Rumpole” books.
Caine, with two Oscars and more than 100 films on his resume, is a writer, too. His second memoir, “The Elephant to Hollywood,” about his days living and working in Los Angeles, comes out in September. And he’s been working on a novel, a thriller, too.
“I’ve been very happy most of my life, thank God — and I’m touching wood here because it’s always terrible to boast — and so my autobiography is not a great, searing drama about how I had to tackle ‘King Lear’ and it broke my heart. I’ve had a very amusing and funny life, but also I lived in Hollywood, and there’s always a funny side to Hollywood.”
So neither the memoir nor the thriller will explore life’s deeper, darker meanings?
“No, you know, I’ve been married to the same woman for 38 years,” he deadpans.
Some people would say that fact alone is worthy of exploration, and explanation.
“To be married to the same woman for 38 years, you need two bathrooms,” Caine says. “Otherwise, you’re standing in the corner waiting for your razor and your toothbrush and she’s got all the rest of it for all this stuff you don’t know what it is.”
After finishing “Harry Brown,” Caine did a few days’ work on Christopher Nolan’s July 16 Leonardo DiCaprio mystery suspenser, “Inception.” The plot remains just as big a mystery to Caine as it does to us: “I didn’t even get the full script — I just got my part,” he explains. “Enough script to know who I was and what I was doing.” Caine expects to be working with Nolan again — returning as Alfred the butler — when the next “Batman” kicks into gear next year.
“And I have a couple of projects which might or might not go, so I don’t want to mention them,” Caine says. “But, really, I’m sort of mentally retired. I’ll go to work when someone sends me a script that I really want to do. And this time ... I’ve found a script that I really want to do and we haven’t got it made yet, so I’m in that position.
“I’ll either work on that, or if I don’t work on that I’ll work on the novel. I have a very happy family life and I’m quite old, and I don’t need to go running around the world because I’ve been everywhere.
“And I can sit at home and look at my photos. I have a very relaxed life.”