Harry Brown

2009. Cert: 18

Director: Daniel Barber

With a shocking and tangibly realistic opening, with the audience literally taken on a breathtaking ride, director Daniel Barber’s movie promises much. Instead the film becomes too much of an explicit violent indulgence. 

We enter the lonely, stark life of elderly Harry Brown played with reliable truthfulness by Michael Caine. His teenage daughter has died and his wife is terminally ill in hospital. His mundane daily routine includes playing chess in the pub with his friend Len (David Bradley), a man who lives in constant fear of his housing estate tormenters. Harry witnesses mindless violence and street bullying. On his daily walk to the hospital he avoids the local gang hang-out: a pedestrian subway, sinisterly evoking the mouth of hell, where no man returns alive.

This is a dystopia. A bleak existence of drug deals and gun gang culture. When Len is murdered and the inadequate justice system allows the guilty perpetrators freedom, former marine Harry goes on a revenge spree.

Yes, this is a vigilante movie. Yes, this is another Death Wish.

No, Harry Brown does not offer anything new or interesting to the genre.

The main problem is the excessive evilness of the young thugs. These wild and amoral villains have no fear of the consequences of their actions. They are without remorse; even smiling with indulgent glee at the blood-soaked image of their dead elderly victim. The script by Gary Young makes no attempt to provide a reason for their anarchic and wicked crimes. We have nothing to empathise with. The script demands we hate these murderers in an attempt perhaps to justify Brown’s eventual bloody vengeance.

The law and the police are superfluous. An early morning raid on gang member homes merely ends up in a street riot. Emily Mortimer’s police officer is feeble, helpless, and whilst Mortimer attempts a sensitive portrayal, her quiet voice and gentle demeanour merely weakens the character further. In addition screenwriter Young gives her the implausible Columbo-like sixth sense; she immediately suspects Brown, whilst colleagues inevitably dismiss her. This, presumably, avoids having to spend time watching her work it out. Instead we get too many drawn out scenes such as Harry’s visit to a local dealer’s drug den; a predictable, horrific environment where we witness heroin needle injections and psychotic drug induced mania. Unfortunately, we have seen all this before in countless films and are apathetic.   

Barber’s direction is at times sharp and he courageously takes time in evoking Harry’s mundane existence but he wastes film with sensational and predictable scenes.

The redeeming quality is Michael Caine. He is a far superior actor to Charles Bronson and he touchingly gives Harry moments of sensitivity. Unfortunately the script doesn’t allow us to see the journey from frail helpless man to vengeful killer. 

Harry Brown portrays a depressing modern urban society. It is possible to leave the cinema drained of hope, fearing the future; when the law is so helpless and the young generation are so utterly amoral. However, thankfully this is a microcosm of an inner-city life, so exaggerated that we can seek comfort in the belief that nothing is so apocalyptic.

Running time: 103 mins

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