Harrigan review

1974. The Winter of Discontent. Mass unemployment, striking workers, power cuts and the three-day week have brought the country to its knees. With the economy in tatters and rampant crime spiraling out of control, Detective Sergeant Barry Harrigan (Tompkinson) returns to Newcastle after secondment in Hong Kong to serve out his last few months before retirement and finds his hometown has changed almost beyond recognition.

With his wet-behind-the-ears subordinate Larson (Stobbart) now his boss and the his colleagues either corrupt, over-stretched or running scared, Harrigan discovers a community under siege, the streets in chaos and ruled by gangster Cole (Fox) and his henchman Dunston (Conway). Determined to clean up the town, Harrigan wages war on the gangs that have taken over, dispensing his own brand of rough justice. But when a small child is accidentally killed and his oldest friend and former colleague brutally murdered, Harrigan’s mission turns personal as the streets dissolve into an orgy of rioting.

Dark and moody, with a name better suited to a Plastic Paddy pub than a low-budget British film, Harrigan should perhaps have been called “Dirty” Harrigan. Closer to an urban Western than a traditional British crime flick. Tompkinson’s tight-lipped protagonist is almost a mythic figure, the tough, no-nonsense sheriff standing alone against the bad guys and cleaning up the mean streets of the North East his way. There’s also shades of the more traditional noir heroes of Hammett; Harrigan’s not necessarily a good man as such, he’s definitely not above using violence, terror and intimidation as tactics to achieve his goals, and in fact his campaign of justice is built upon these foundations, but come the times, come the man and he’s definitely the right man for the situation, administering dry slaps to dodgy geezers, talking down suicidal fathers and showing a fatherly concern for the local struggling single mum being terrorised by loan sharks, doing her shopping and drafting in colleagues to secure her flat.  

Despite the '70s setting however, Harrigan’s no macho cartoon like Gene Hunt, he’s a compassionate man with a fierce social conscience closer to William McIlvanney’s Camus-steered detective Laidlaw (finally back in print) and while reigning King of Sunday Night Telly Tompkinson is, at times, a little hard to swallow as the mean, moody, two-fisted avenger he acquits himself well as the empathetic copper trying to rebuild a broken community, shining in the quieter moments, Tompkinson’s innate humanity and soulfulness lending Harrigan heart as well as steel. He’s ably supported by veteran Scots hardman Roëves (sporting possibly the worst Geordie accent ever) as his former sergeant Billy, a fragile Manson as victimised single mum Vickey and Neil Marshall regulars Morfitt and Conway as cop and psycho respectively, Conway’s Dunston the type of thoroughly creepy small town psycho you never want to jostle in a pub.

Moodily directed by Woods and written by former police detective McKenzie, who brings a gritty authenticity to the piece, there are obvious parallels between the economic wasteland of the '70s and the mess we’re currently in, the ashes of Call-Me Dave’s Big Society as cold and inhospitable as the Winter of Discontent. We’re still a nation of haves and haven’t-got-a-hopes, eaten alive by parasites, the gangs and corrupt Masonic cliques Harrigan faces simply metamorphosing into our current crop of venal bankers and our champers-swilling political class. While the film at times betrays its small screen origins, it was originally developed as a TV series and feels a little rushed, Harrigan is a tough, no-nonsense little thriller that punches above its weight a lot like its protagonist.

Harrigan at IMDb

INTERVIEW: Harrigan's Stephen Tompkinson and Arthur McKenzie

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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