26 May 2010

Movie Review: Harry Brown


Harry Brown
2009, 103mins, 18
Director: Daniel Barber
Writer: Gary Young
Cast includes: Michael Caine, Ben Drew, Emily Mortimer, Liam Cunningham, David Bradley, Iain Glen
UK Release Date: 11th November 2009

“Harry Brown” is a compelling film, powered by a devastatingly raw performance from the legendary Michael Caine. Oscar nominated director (for his 2007 short film “The Tonto Woman”) Daniel Barber makes his feature length debut here, and it’s an uncompromising and promising foray from the filmmaker. Set in midst of the UK’s hoodie culture, “Harry Brown” offers elements of “Death Wish” and Shane Meadows in one bleak little production. Those looking for cheerful cinema or smile inducing Hollywood whimsy had best seek their thrills elsewhere. Barber has crafted a gritty and relentlessly unsettling view of life on UK estates, painting an aggressive and disturbing portrait of the gang violence and drug abuse that dominates such areas.

Following the loss of his wife, ex-marine Harry Brown (Michael Caine) spends his days playing chess and drinking with old buddy Leonard (David Bradley) at the local pub. The separate estates the men live on are riddled with violence, the police failing to tackle the drug trading, theft and assaults that occur on a daily basis. When Leonard is killed by a gang of youths, Harry snaps, deciding to take matters into his own hands. With an Inspector (Emily Mortimer) desperately trying (but ultimately failing) to land convictions, Harry goes on a vengeful tirade of violence; seeking extreme retribution on the anti-social misfits who have robbed him of his best friend.

Michael Caine is truly excellent in “Harry Brown”. Caine encompasses the necessary sense of tragedy and hard edged bloodlust, turning Harry into a convincing and sympathetic character. The actor looks positively terrifying in the tenacious moments of revenge that are scattered throughout the movie, but similarly he succeeds in unpacking the script’s emotional baggage, creating a believable human being in the process. There are enough tender moments of emotional sincerity and sadness to make Harry the focus of the audience’s support, despite the cruel and gory nature his retribution takes. Caine quietly dominates “Harry Brown” from the start, conjuring a true sense of elderly distress and rage concerning the world around him. The supporting cast provide quality back-up, Emily Mortimer doing particularly stoic and truthful work as a conflicted detective. Ben Drew (better known as musician Plan B) is menacing as the leader of the gang Harry targets, whilst further decent efforts are provided by the likes of Iain Glen, David Bradley, Liam Cunningham and Jack O’Connell. The film focuses (and at times outright depends) too heavily on Michael Caine for the cast here to be labelled an ensemble, but in fairness, all the performers work well to flesh out the gritty and drab environment around them.

The screenplay by Gary Young is from a narrative perspective somewhat unbalanced, but it packs enough honesty and good characterization to paper across the unfocused plotting. “Harry Brown” does lurch from one scene to another with an almost randomized sense of urgency, but by the end the viewer is completely onside with the picture’s tragic anti-hero. Individual scenes also work extremely well, and whilst the structure might be suspect; the pacing is pitch perfect. The moments of violence that populate the picture deserve kudos for focusing on raw anger and distress, rather than lingering shamelessly on the often bloody aftermath of Caine’s actions. Barber’s film definitely captures a dirty and scary vision of the UK, but in the end it always comes back to Harry and his own personal desire to hunt and eviscerate the local scum. For Barber his leading man’s turmoil is more interesting than yet another social commentary on British street thugs.

The music courtesy of Ruth Barrett and Martin Phipps is eerily composed and endearingly suitable, adding an extra dimension of storminess to Barber’s already desolate visuals. The film cranks up to a serviceably tense climax, and the payoff is adequate without neutering the project’s ferociously realistic sensibility. “Harry Brown” is a powerful cinematic diversion, and it provides a true platform for the aging Michael Caine to demonstrate his prowess as an actor. “Harry Brown” isn’t an easy watch, but it carries a weight of importance and relevance behind it, which coupled with a superb leading performance, marks it out as worth watching.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2010


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