Daniel Barber’s debut film Harry Brown opens with unwieldy shots of the everyday violence that occur in London’s council estate of Elephant and Castle. It is a cruel and unforgiving introduction to the world that Harry (Michael Caine) now finds himself in.
A former Marine, Harry Brown now lives a quiet and lonely life that consists of solitude broken up only by visits to his ailing wife in the hospital followed by drinks with his friend Leonard (David Bradley) at the local seedy pub. After the violence that surrounds him intercedes on his life he takes action into his own hands. The revenge fantasy begins and takes on a life of its own as everyone in Brown’s path becomes a target. Detective Inspector Frampton (Emily Mortimer) joins the film as Harry’s humanity begins to slip away. She is the only one who sees past Harry’s elderly facade to something more going on underneath.
In Britain’s recent election one of the major concerns for the voters was crime perpetrated by derelict youths. It is no surprise as Harry Brown was released overseas in 2009. It is a film about violence that implicates society into its motivations. It comes off at times like a propaganda film for the Conservative Party.
What makes Harry Brown memorable is the performances by Caine, Mortimer and the young actors who terrorize them both. Many people have forgotten about Caine’s ability to play pure evil and Harry Brown depicts this beautifully. It takes but the shift of his eyes and a tilt of his head to portray the turn from elderly man to a killer. Mortimer’s understated performance helps keep the film in the real world by showing the tired and worn down face of the police force. The young actors offer positively chilling portrayals of a generation that has been lost and may indeed be beyond saving.
The film’s weaknesses are in Barber’s lack of subtlety with the situation. Nothing is insinuated. Everything is blared, several times in fact, to make sure the audience understands the grim world they are entering. The opening moments of Harry Brown’s day to day activities are heavy handed to say the least. It becomes clear that he is on his own, that he has lost everything. The consistent shots of Harry stroking the side of the bed that his wife once occupied are unnecessary and manipulative. Barber seems to lack trust that one of these shots in the experienced hands of an actor like Caine tells the story fully. He is a rare actor who can do more in a sideways glance than most can do in an entire career.
Only by the second half does the film come alive. After a truly unnerving visit to the local drug dealer, Harry begins to see the widespread impact of the rampant drug use in his area and there is no stopping him. The social criticism gives way to all out ass-kicking and some truly terrifying moments. The violence does not end but increases leaving the audience with the question: is anyone alright?