Retro Review: Harry Brown
Violence is often glorified in films. Its reality is heightened with ultra-stylized ways of shooting, stabbing or even poisoning people. It’s moved to locales we don’t normally have access to in our everyday lives (on top of cars on highways, running across Brazilian favela rooftops, above the New York skyline, or simply into space). The deaths themselves are lifted out of the narrative, into a slow-motion portrait of that person’s reaction to its unavoidable mortality, where it is given a fittingly heroic or villainous send-off.
None of that applies to Harry Brown.
Michael Caine‘s Harry Brown is a pensioner living in a run-down housing estate in the wrong part of London. The neighbourhood is overrun by drug-running, violent, trigger-happy “youths”, whose inglorious hall of power is an underpass next to the estate. Their dominion over this underpass leads to Brown missing the death of his wife. When his best friend Len is killed by those same thugs, the ex-marine finally has enough and does what the police is hopelessly unable to do; bring justice to the wrongdoers.
This isn’t your run-of-the-mill raging rampage of revenge, however. Directing his first full-length film, Daniel Barber reins in a plot that could easily become a purely heterotopic fantasy tale of Stathamesque proportions, and keeps its feet firmly placed in a harrowing and all-encompassing realism. Caine’s Brown transforms, yes, but he still has a weak heart due to old age. The thugs kill without remorse, but they don’t do it with detached film gusto; they swarm like monsters in the dark, pumped up by unexplainable rage and strength in numbers destroying cars, bashing their owners’ heads in on the sidewalk and then running away before the screaming wife even gets to the scene. They are scarier than any supervillain you can imagine, simply because they are so real.
In particular, there are two scenes viewed through a phone camera, both of them depicting absolutely senseless and horrific acts of violence, which will leave a lasting impact on most viewers. All of this may be insanely disgusting, but it is necessary, not only for a commentary on “modern Britain”, but for the film’s narrative.
When Harry Brown sets off on his mission, it happens almost by accident. He doesn’t have a checklist, he doesn’t prepare kill rooms, but simply starts reacting to all the horror around him. He’s fueled by vengeance, sure, but we don’t root for him because he looks good killing bad guys (although he unmistakably does, being Michael Caine). No. We root for him because in him we see ourselves and what we secretly want to do when seeing the news, or worse, witnessing these wrongful acts ourselves.
Especially effective are a scene between Brown and Sean Harris‘ drug-crazed Stretch, where we get a sudden and revealing insight into Brown’s past, and a third-act underpass confrontation between Brown and gang leader Noel Winters (played to eerie precision by Ben Drew, AKA Plan B). The videos can be seen below the verdict. Drew, along with kings of dubstep, Chase & Status, then cap off the film with the thumping but haunting end credits song, fittingly titled End Credits.
In addition, Emily Mortimer and Charlie Creed-Miles offer ample support as police duo Frampton and Hicock, trying to get to the bottom of the case and becoming morally conflicted when the truth of the situation reveals itself to them.
Aside from a late third-act plot twist involving the otherwise commendable Liam Cunningham, which comes off as a tad contrived and artificial, Harry Brown does not put a foot wrong the whole time.
Final Verdict: Harry Brown does not make for idle watching, especially not for viewers with experience of living in urban societies. The violence is brutal and realistic, the villains are terrifying in their vicious and inhuman behavior, and the visual tone of the film is gritty without ever becoming too much “kitchen sink”. But most of all, it’s Michael Caine who commands almost every frame, as he embodies Harry Brown, becoming simultaneously a frail old man and a manifestation of rightful vengeance. A lasting, if an uncomfortable experience.
Have you seen Harry Brown? What’s your verdict? Tell us in the comments.