Harry Brown

The British urban landscape and the youths that are generated by it have become a fascination for films recently, with movies such as Adulthood, Kidulthood, Eden Lake and Shifty all making cinema releases.

The initial concept behind Harry Brown, an old war veteran, frustrated with the youth of today sets out to right their many wrongs, sounds very much like a synopsis written for Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. But the distance between the two as far as content goes, is like the difference between High School Musical and the Saw movies. Caine, fresh from his role of butler Alfred Pennyworth in The Dark Knight, now takes the lead in this murky British indie about justice, revenge and reaching breaking point.

The best way to view this movie, is as a modern day, urban western. Harry Brown is our retired ex gunslinger, forced to pick up a weapon one last time by events that are out of his control. Someone needs to bring order back to a wild town, and by damn, Brown is the man to do it.The issue lies at the heart of the film, as it is not clear what it is really trying to say through its narrative. Although there are undoubtedly examples of evil, heartless creatures existing in some elements of society, the youths in this movie sometimes seem forced, straight out of the warning pages of the Daily Mail.

The story itself also feels like a lengthened version of a script that could have been used in a top rate television programme, rather than a theatrically released feature film. If Caine’s name was substituted for that of someone like David Jason, then a toned down version of this would not look out of place in the schedules of ITV or the BBC (obviously the hardcore drug use, sex and graphic violence would disappear). It is the performances, not just from Caine, but also from Mortimer (DI Frampton), Creed-Miles (DS Hicock) and Drew (Noel Winters), that lift the story and make it absorbing and interesting. Special mention should also be given to Bradley (Leonard Attwell), in the role as Harry’s best friend, as he manages to convey real helplessness and isolation when being picked on by the local hoodies.

In the final act, director Barber plays a trump card with a brilliant twist, set among riots caused by heavy handed policing. The group violence illustrates that the powers that be with the Met don’t always know best and Harry discovers that the corruption within the housing estate runs deeper than first thought. Overall, Harry Brown is a well intended piece of British film making, using the great cast to the best of their abilities to push the story along. The dialogue is snappy and well paced, delivered with conviction and feeling. But, despite enjoying the movie, its conflicting message detracts from it becoming a one of the classic  low budget Brit flicks.
SECOND OPINION | David Franklin ***½
Harry Brown is a closeted standard issue revenge flick with ideas above it’s station. With a score reminiscent of Taxi Driver and an overall seriousness of tone, you wonder if it’s intended as a serious social document. I found myself wanting to shout “Come out of the closet! Don’t be ashamed of what you are! Blow some heads off!”. This supposed snapshot of modern Britain will have Daily Mail readers frothing at the mouth as all their worst fears are realised, and leave them more convinced than ever that anyone wearing a hoodie deserves to die (*fearfully removes own hoodie*).

The villains here are so vile and one dimensional (one drug/arms dealer in particular is totally over the top) that they can only be a screenwriter’s construct, designed to stack the deck so heavily in Caine’s favour that any questions about his subsequent morally dubious behaviour are brushed aside. That said, as a Death Wish-style revenge thriller, the film undeniably works, for two reasons: firstly, it’s extremely well made. This is Daniel Barber’s first feature, and it’s surely a calling card for greater things to come. Barber atmospherically shoots the urban sink estate so that it rivals the one depicted in last year’s Gommorrah for the number one slot on my PLACES I DON’T WANT TO LIVE chart. Barber also carefully details Harry’s growing anger at how his home has been overrun by crime, so that the film slowly builds to a satisfying series of very violent confrontations. Secondly, the acting across the board is excellent, even when the characters seem somewhat underwritten. Emily Mortimer in particular is sensitive and believable as a well intentioned but ultimately ineffectual policewoman investigating Leonard’s murder.

But the film is really elevated by the man himself, Michael Caine, completely convincing as the elderly hero and given some memorable lines (“You failed to maintain your weapon” BLAM!). But Harry is not Dirty Harry. When forced to give chase he collapses with exhaustion after only a few paces. This is a vulnerable old man, which adds tension to the film’s confrontations, and there’s a real sense of sadness and anger behind Caine’s watery eyes. It’s also worth mentioning that Caine is cooler than you or I will ever be (and that’s saying something, because you are really cool). Harry Brown is pretty much a must-see for his performance alone, though satisfyingly it’s also a British genre film that successfully competes with Hollywood.

Harry Brown at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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