Thursday, 5 November 2009

Harry Brown


Directed by: Daniel Barber
Written by: Gary Young
Starring: Michael Caine, Iain Glen, Liam Cunningham & Emil Mortimer

Contender for the darkest, grimiest and nastiest mainstream film to come out in some time (well since the last Saw film at least), Harry Brown is a take no prisoners decent into council estate, drug fuelled, hate crime hell. It’s also, if you can stomach it, a cracking revenge thriller. Distinctively British and full of grit, Harry Brown gives acting icon Michael Caine a great leading role and shows at almost 80 years old he can still hold the screen, carry a film and dish out the violent justice on some foul mouth yobs.

Set in the bleakest and dirtiest of council estates, Harry Brown (Caine) is an aging pensioner living a cold and lonely existence in a high rise tenant block. His wife is on her death bed, his local populated with drug peddling scum and his best mate Len (David Bradley) is scared for his life, continually tormented by the local gangs of kids. These aren’t just your normal bunch of gobby teenagers: they pack guns and knifes, deal drugs and have no problem using any of the three to do harm or inflict pain. Which they do, killing Len and enforcing their terrifying grip on the local estate. This, coupled with death of his wife, forces Harry Brown, a former marine who may just have killed before, to take up arms and hit back at the violent yobs.

Despite being professionally made with slick camerawork and an effective use of music and sound (long periods of quiet broken by sudden bursts of loud sound and violence), Harry Brown sticks to its dark heart from reel one. The viewer is immersed into a miserable, dark and dank world where there is little hope, save for the possibility that one pensioner might be able to do something about the escalating violence. The teenagers are vile people and while they drop f-bombs and c-bombs left, right and centre, they are used sparingly making them a more menacing presence than clich├ęd, shouty delinquents. The young cast (including Jack O’Connell, Ben Drew and Lee Oakes) infuse their yobs with bite and terror, not least in an intense interrogation scene when they are first brought up on the charge of murdering Len. The setting itself is an oppressive character, more like a prison than a housing estate and the film bathes in its grimy grey look never letting us escape the oppressive nature of the surroundings or the subject. There is some hope, in the form of Emily Mortimer’s kindly police detective who knows what Harry is up to but she herself is surrounded by useless and sexist police officers who give her little time or acknowledgment.

However, this is no kitchen sink drama. Harry Brown is still a full on revenge thriller and after the satisfyingly slow and tense build up of the first half, good old Harry gets down to avenging his friend's death. It’s a testament to the filmmakers for making a seventy odd year old seem convincing at dishing out the violence and handling a gun with measured build up and several incredibly tense and well staged sequences. Rather than have Caine become some kind of old age Rambo, toting bazookas and machines guns, the action scenes are staged convincingly and simply show an old man who hasn’t forgotten a “certain set of skills” he required while serving in the armed forces. The violence hits hard, make no doubt about it, but it's well paced throughout the film rather than a full on non-stop gore-a-thon. Several scenes will leave a bad taste in the mouth but, as mentioned, this is a dark world Harry is in and he must fight violence with violence. Two stand-out sequences include a gripping shootout in a subway walkthrough and a terrifyingly extended confrontation in a horrifying drug den that is worth checking out the flick for alone.

Despite the gritty and reaching for realism tone, things do go a little over-the-top come the end (a full on riot, a plot twist signposted a mile away) but there is a riveting showdown and even signs of hope, which comes as a relief after all the doom and gloom. The flick is perhaps a little too eager to be dark and dingy but it’s refreshing to see the subject taken seriously. Yes, it is wish fulfilment as it is a movie and fictional story after all but the dark tone and serious approach help create the tense experience Harry Brown is. Ignore the somewhat misleading advertising which seems to make the film look like some kind of ‘cool Britannia’ slice of posing fluff starring Michael Caine, as, well Michael Caine. It’s not. It’s a tough and serious film, a tale of violent retribution with an excellent and often restrained performance from Mr Caine with several scenes that will linger in your mind for some time afterwards. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste but brave and brutal at the same time: Harry Brown certainly dishes out his revenge cold.

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