“Harry Brown” Is Relevant, Realistic & Powerfully Unsettling

Michael Caine is brilliant as Harry Brown in director Daniel Barber’s relevant, realistically detailed and powerfully unnerving urban drama…

Harry Brown (Michael Caine) is an elderly ex-military widower living in a downtrodden housing complex somewhere in London. His wife has recently died and he still mourns the death of his only daughter. He only has Leonard (David Bradley), his best friend, to confide in, often meeting him at the local pub to play chess and put the world to rights. But violence is escalating in the neighbourhood and Leonard begins to carry a large knife for protection. When Leonard is driven to retribution after youths put a fire bomb through his letterbox, he is murdered, leaving Harry all alone on the estate.

harry brown, film, michael caine,

Director Daniel Barber’s debut feature film is another in an increasingly populated sub-genre depicting modern day urban decay in British cities. As a depiction of the country’s ASBO youth, the out of control teenager’s and twenty-something’s that have nothing better to do than deal and use drugs while harassing the peaceful locals, the film is uncompromising. The opening recalls the awful happy-slapping videos that crop up on the internet as a youth is initiated into a gang. We are then treated to a pair of out of control children shooting a pistol at a mother pushing a child in a pushchair. The woman is hit in the head, a disturbing event in itself made more unnerving as the culprits escape on a motorbike and are hit and killed by a passing car. Barber is relentless and damning.

Michael Caine stars in the film at the grand old age of 76. But he proves he’s lost none of his touch. Brown isn’t a vigilante in the mould of Jennifer Hills’ abused femme-‘fatal’ in I Spit On Your Grave, he’s an aged man of the world. His military training has taught him the survival instincts to stay one step ahead of these young offenders despite his advanced years holding him back. He doesn’t suddenly transform into a super-anti-hero. He doesn’t suddenly become the pissed off gun-toting granddad with a grudge, he’s driven to make amends by a police force unable to bring the killers to justice, unable to curb the violence and drug trade, and seemingly disinterested in the pleas of the law abiding citizens. His best friend Leonard asked the police for help, they didn’t do anything and in trying to help himself, he ended up dead. Barber isn’t subtle in his criticism of failing governmental measures to reduce escalating crime in decaying urban environments.

The film is fittingly violent but has character and depth to go along with its drive-bys and happy-slapping. Harry Brown is the good-natured soul driven to helping himself, Emily Mortimer’s Detective Inspector Frampton is fighting a system that constantly pulls the rug from under her, while angry young man Noel Winters (Ben Drew) is the product of a broken society.

Barber complements some feisty performances with a truly harrowing riot between police and the neighbourhood’s gangs that recalls the violence seen in British cities, such as Bradford and Oldham, over the last couple of decades.

Sean Harris, who portrayed Joy Division singer Ian Curtis so successfully in 24 Hour Party People, shows up for a small part as the local drug and gun supplier. This is perhaps Barber’s only misstep. Harris is brilliantly sadistic as the bleary-eyed drug pusher and part-time pornographer but Barber decides to discard the authentic grey exteriors and cold, wintry British setting for a dreamy drug den bathed in low light and threatening shadow. Harris, his body stained in tattoos, loses a little credibility as he dips in and out of the dark like Marlon Brando at the end of Apocalypse Now. I couldn’t help feeling the film stepped out of itself for a moment and, instead of being the gritty, urban British drama it once was, now aped Hollywood’s overly glossy production values.

But that shouldn’t detract from what is a superb debut from Daniel Barber and another in a long line of iconic characters from Michael Caine. Harry Brown is relevant, realistically detailed and powerfully unnerving.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews

Directed by: Daniel Barber
Written by: Gary Young
Starring: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer
Released: 2009 / Genre: Revenge Drama / Country: UK / IMDB
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Discover More: Top 10 Michael Caine Films

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    rtm Reply

    I’m curious to see this even though I have trepidation regarding the brutal violence. This sounds like Michael Caine’s answer that the mature Brit can be as bad ass as Clint ‘Dirty Harry’ Eastwood in Gran Torino 😀 I read a review that said Emily Mortimer was the weakest link in this, which I find hard to believe as she’s usually pretty good.

  2. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @rtm: Emily Mortimer is her usual assured self. If anything it would be her character being a little underwritten but it’s only because she has to play second fiddle to Caine’s Harry Brown. It is similar to Gran Torino in many ways but Harry Brown is more violent and is less a study of character, more a study of a social problem.

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    Caz Reply

    I went to see this at the cinema when it was first released and really found it to be very appropriate in terms of people being scared of “hoodies”. Something that occurs in everyday life now, obviously the film took it to another level with the amount of violence. But possibly a scary look into what could happen on the streets of England if a stop is not put to anti-social behaviour.

  4. Avatar
    Fitz Reply

    Michael Caine has only gotten better in his old age. Can’t wait to see what Nolan has in store for him in TDKR.

  5. Avatar
    CMrok93 Reply

    It’s a normal, vigilante thriller but Caine gives it this certain push, that has you keep on watching, even when it seems like you have seen this all before. Good Review!

  6. Avatar
    Russell_Oz Reply

    Great review Daniel, enjoyed reading it.

    I loved ‘Harry Brown’, it was great, dirty, gritty, story which allowed Michael Caine to play both sides of a character pushed to a violent point when no one else could help him.

    As much as I enjoyed your review, I have to disagree with you re Sean Harris’ portrayal of a disgusting drug dealer who literally made my skin crawl when he was on-screen. His portrayal was so vivid that I was still trying to shake that image of him after leaving the cinema.


    When Harry Brown put that character out of his misery with (my favourite line) “you’ve failed to maintain your weapon, son” I think I may have actually cheered in the cinema…

    I loved ‘Harry Brown’ even though I don’t know if I will be racing to watch it’s grittiness any time soon.

  7. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Russell: Many thanks for the comment Russell. I did think Harris was superb but didn’t like the stylised visuals. Not because they didn’t necessarily work on their own, but that they seemed removed from the grey skies and wallpaper existence that Harry Brown found himself in.

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