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.
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 Stephens – See all reviews