Sir Michael Caine turns 80 years of age on March 14. The epitome of British acting royalty, his mantelpiece groans with the weight of film awards including two BAFTAs for lifetime achievement and Educating Rita – he also won a Golden Globe for Rita and Little Voice – and two Oscars for The Cider House Rules and Hannah and Her Sisters.
“I'm in the fortunate and luxurious position of only working when I want to,” he wrote in September 2010 in an essay that ran in a UK newspaper. “I don't like getting up early or spending a long time learning lines, so these days I only work with offers that I really can't refuse.”
One of his most recent lead performances is as the pensioner Harry Brown in the film of the same name, which plays on SBS One this Saturday at 9.30pm. In the opening scenes, Harry's wife passes away, then his elderly friend, who lives on the same council estate. With little to lose, Harry morphs into a vigilante.
Harry Brown is definitely not a film for the fainthearted: there are a lot of nasty, shocking scenes and my immediate reaction was surprise and curiosity about Caine's decision to be involved.
“It wasn't a movie I wanted to do, it was a movie I had to do because I saw a lot of myself in the character,” he said at the time of the film's release. “I understood the character absolutely and completely.”
Caine fought in Korea so, like Harry, is an ex-serviceman. Caine, like Harry, grew up in the East End, living near the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, where several of the scenes were filmed. Caine, like Harry, also came from poverty.
But the actor's decision to commit to Harry Brown was also because the script tapped into his concerns about the drug-fuelled violence impacting the young in contemporary London.
“We all used to go out and get pissed on alcohol but if you get pissed on alcohol, you don't go out and stab someone, you just fall over flat on your face.”
He believes young people now can't bounce back like previous generations did because they don't have as much family support and are not provided with the education that they need in order to understand that they have other choices. (It made me wonder about Caine's politics and he's a perfect example of a swinging voter, having supported Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and the current Prime Minister David Cameron.)
Films usually have to be seen widely to have a big impact of any kind and Harry Brown was too violent to attract big numbers. But it is well worth seeing for the masterful performance of Caine but, if you do have a weak stomach and as I say in my on-air introduction, go make a cup of tea when Harry goes to buy a gun.