Michele Hewitson: Mo almost steals the show

Oscar Kightley as Harry, the conflicted cop. Photo / Supplied
Oscar Kightley as Harry, the conflicted cop. Photo / Supplied

Quite enough has been written (some of it by me) about Sam Neill's moustache in Harry (last night, TV3) but really it should have its own show. It possibly already does.

Sam Neill's moustache (actually it belongs to Jim "Stocks" Stockton, his old-school police detective character) is a very clever actor.

It sets scene and period and masks emotion, which is what passes for emotion with Stocks.

It is a generous moustache and Neill is a generous actor. He's so good, so cool, so nipped-in emotionally that he is, - paradoxically given that standing back from anything that looks like acting - capable of stealing the show from its lead, Oscar Kightley, who is Harry.

Neill is too clever and decent an actor to do any such thing, even if he's had the best lines so far. When Stocks is told by his boss that he wants results, he says: "Right. Then I'll just pull a rabbit out of my arse, shall I?"

Harry is set in 2002, so the moustache and tone make sense.

It is long enough ago that political correctness hadn't yet quite taken over police constables and their higher-ups. A moustache such as Harry's might be a rare hairy beast these days in the cop shop (for all I know); it was probably an endangered species in 2002, which is rather the old-school point.

His "best detective", Harry, is from a newer school, but not by much. Harry goes on gut feeling and making contacts and winning trust in his community, which is South Auckland.

The script adviser and co-writer is Neil Grimstone, a former top Counties Manukau cop. It feels real. I'm not saying he and his coppers would have let a police dog have a good nudge at an offender, a nudge that goes on a little longer than was perhaps strictly necessary, but he might well have heard of coppers who would have.

The language of the cop shop sounds bang-on. "You lazy bloody hori," says Harry to a Maori cop who responds in kind: "The honorary coconut's back ..."

This sort of affectionate banter would likely result in a formal complaint being lodged these days (or in a visit to the police shrink), but back in the day when the mo ruled, you might have got away with it.

The landscape is familiar, at least at first glance. This is Once Were Warriors territory, but dysfunction and violence don't change their face dramatically over time.

There are gangs and drugs but the drugs are now P. Otara is still fairly bleak from the outside but alongside houses with the drugs and the dirt and despair and crying babies and shouting mothers are pretty, tidy, loved houses and, inside them, loving parents. The parents of the killer call the police to tell them that it is their son who shot a bank teller. The mother recognised his shoes from a CCTV picture on the front page of the Herald. That has the ring of a true story about it.

The exchanges between Harry and the parents and the mediating pastor are in Samoan. No translation is supplied and none is needed. Still, the easy thing to do would have been to insert a non-Samoan speaking cop who required a translation - on the audience's behalf - into these scenes. For the non-Samoan speaking audience this lack of translation might have proved alienating; instead it feels inclusive. It's a cleverly intuitive device, one which rounds out Harry's character and the conflicts of his world.

You forget Kightley is a comedian. He is terrific as the hollowed-out Harry - it's not just in his face but in the very way he walks, as though on hot coals he can no longer feel so dulled are his senses - who so easily could have come across as that cliched fictional police detective.

His wife has killed herself. He's drinking too much. He's living with his mum, and his daughter, who is fighting at school and crying at night. He ran off to Samoa and left her in the immediate aftermath of her mother's death. He's avoiding dealing with her trauma, and his own. He's not a bad father but he's failing to be a good one.

There have been a few too many of the parallels and contradictions drawn for us: The killer (who has those good and caring parents) crying for his lost life; the daughter crying for her lost mother and distant father.

A few too many lingering shots on photos of happier family times and looking into the bottoms of glasses, but now the characters and storyline have been established, the pace and character development will hopefully take over and off. It's certainly off to a compellingly sure-footed and hard-nosed start.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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