Harry Brown is scared. The estate where he lives is run by the out of control kids who live there. They deal drugs, are armed, and are prone to committing random acts of violence. Harry is so intimidated, when his wife takes a turn for the worse, he still takes the long way around the main road, because he doesn’t want to go down into the subway. His friend Len is also frightened, and is sick of it. He’s armed himself with an old bayonet, and is threatening to use it. Harry gets the news the next day. He has now lost everything, and despairs for the world around him.
Harry Brown is angry. The kids are getting away with murder, and the police are seemingly powerless to stop them. A chance encounter on the tow path pushes Harry to the edge. Is this what his life has come to? Harry decides to buy a gun. Is it for self defence? Or revenge? With nothing left to lose, what’s to stop ex-marine Harry from dispensing a bit of justice himself?
The early word on Harry Brown was that ‘it’s a bit like Gran Torino’. Be under no mis-conceptions, this isn’t your Hollywood fairy tale, a story of a man who learns to overcome his prejudice and love thy neighbour. This is drama. Dark, bleak, uncompromising. Filmed on a low budget, partly financed by the lottery comission, and directed by British first time director Daniel Barber, Harry Brown is a gritty exploration of the youth in revolt you might find in any working class estate, in any town in Britain.
Drugs, violence, sexual abuse, this film is at times difficult to watch. Difficult because of the nature of the violence yes, but more so because it’s all so… real.
We’d like to hide our heads in the sand, and pretend this is an extreme view of the world, and isn’t really happening. But it is. It’s happening every day, somewhere in your town. The no mans land of the subway may sound a little cliche, but that’s because it’s true. We all know that underpass, or that alley, or that park that we walk around, for we dare not enter. Daniel Barber has shot Harry Brown very well. An opening shaky-cam sequence foreshadows the chaos to come. The violence is filmed in several different ways, all very effectively. A gang attack seen from a high window, vicious with eerily muted sounds. A happy-slap style mobile phone video. Scenes are darkly lit with stark yellow streetlights, but the violence is clear as day, and menacingly real.
Director Daniel Barber also takes a real poke at the ineptitude of the police force too. Caught up with ideas of crime fighting initiatives with names like Project Lion, their ineffectiveness at grass roots level is hopelessly exposed. Never more so than in the run up to the climax, when the police attempt a handful of arrests, but arriving short-handed trigger a terrifying riot in the estate.
Michael Caine doesn’t need to work anymore. He’s worked in the business for six decades, performed in every genre, won awards, semi-retired, then done it all again. This means that when you see his name in the cast list, you expect something special. And it is a great performance from Caine. Known for being a vibrant and humorous character, it makes his convincing portrayal of a timid old man in failing health all the more remarkable.
However, as a movie, Harry Brown is deeply flawed. There is a real pacing issue, particularly in the middle part. Harry’s descent has to be a slow burn to be believable, but as he is present in every scene, it slows the movie down to a crawl. One scene in particular, as Harry sits in a squat trying to buy a gun, starts off tense, but as the sequence drags on, and you wait for the switch to flip, you’re left waiting too long, and the tension ebbs away.
The other major problem is that whilst Harry is a well rounded character, his youthful nemeses are unforgivably two dimensional. There are a couple of scenes explaining away their motivations as being a product of the abuse sustained from their paternal figures, but we see very little of their interactions with each other, no development of their personal relationships. One line in the film gives it away. Harry tells DI Frampton that at least in Northern Ireland he was fighting for something, and that these kids are just doing it for entertainment. That’s the view being expressed here, that the antagonists are just animals.
Ironically, these two major issues could have been rectified at the same time. If the story of these kids had been explored more deeply, those scenes could have been intercut with Harry’s journey, providing a more balanced account and solving the pacing problems.
Caine won’t have been paid much, and it’s obvious he took this role on because of his belief in the message the film maker is trying to put across. Before the screening, Sir Michael explained that it was a film about violence, but not a violent film. He went on to say that it was not meant to glamorize violence.
Harry Brown nearly lives up to this, until the final scene. I don’t want to give too much away, just to say that when someone is shown to have made their own life better by violence that they have perpetrated, for me that is a true glamorization of violence. Barber has tried to make both a film with an important message, and an entertaining movie. Unfortunately, he has not succeeded on either count. He has shown enough here however to suggest he can become a very good director. The problems with this film are down to inexperience and a bad script, both of which can be overcome. Harry Brown is worth watching, if only to remind you how lucky you are.
Harry Brown opens in cinemas in the UK this Wednesday 11th November. No word on a US release yet. Hey, we got Harry Brown, you got Boondock Saints 2.
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