Review by Jack Foley
DANIEL Barber’s directorial debut Harry Brown is the type of movie that wants to have its cake and eat it. And to be fair, it almost does!
On the one hand, Barber insists it’s an important piece of social commentary that should kickstart an urgently needed debate about the state of young Britain. On the other, it’s a violent piece of entertainment that’s merely masquerading as having something important to say. And it doesn’t really have it both ways.
On the plus side, Barber displays plenty of finesse behind the camera and refuses to pull any punches. As such, he’s rewarded with an excellent central performance from Michael Caine, who continues to get better with age.
Yet protest as much as he likes, Barber’s film eventually falls victim to its own ‘message’ and almost celebrates the violence it seeks to condemn a little too much.
As fun as seeing Caine’s vigilante deliver some much-needed justice to direspectful, murderous youths is, it’s a little too audience friendly when a little more abhorrence wouldn’t have gone amiss.
The plot centres on Harry Brown (Caine), an ex-Royal Marine living on an estate that’s being terrorised by youth gangs.
Harry reaches breaking point, however, when his wife dies and his best friend is savagely beaten and killed while attempting to stand up to the gangs.
Reverting back to his ruthless army days, Brown seeks justice and revenge while remaining careful to stay one step ahead of the law.
Harry Brown has variously been labelled “an English Gran Torino“ and Michael Caine doing Death Wish. But while it lacks the finesse of Eastwood’s vision, it’s not as tacky or exploitative as Michael Winner’s ’70s movies.
Early on, especially, the film packs an almighty punch with a pre-credits sequence laying the template for the shocking realism of the violence that follows. In terms of gut-wrenching openings, Joe Carnahan’s Narc would be a better comparison.
Caine’s gradual intolerance is also patiently chronicled, thereby allowing the actor to really tap into the emotional complexity inherent in his reactionary pensioner.
Once Brown stikes back, however, the film struggles to cope with the need to juggle crowd-pleasing moments with hard-hitting commentary.
The violence becomes a little more cartoonish at times, while the script more glib. It’s ‘fun’ when it shouldn’t really be.
Barber and screenwriter Gary Young also somewhat lazily disregard other key characters, most notably Emily Mortimer’s investigating officer who isn’t afforded the time to get to grips with her own agenda.
Rather, Mortimer feels short-changed, her character pathetically ambiguous in terms of sympathies and more of an inconvenience than anyone with a real perspective.
Likewise, Iain Glen’s one dimensional police commander and Liam Cunningham’s publican.
Ben Drew’s central yob, meanwhile, is nasty and in need of a comeuppance without ever really being afforded the time to tap into the reasons for his thuggery – something that Barber, in interview, will strain to insist needs attention and consideration in real life (he spoke to countless youths on similar estates as part of his research).
Taken on sheer entertainment terms, Harry Brown is a cold, effective, brutal thriller that delivers thrills and a vintage Caine performance. By virtue of the fact that it aspires to something greater, however, it’s only partially successful and may leave an unpleasant after-taste.
Running time: 103mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: March 22, 2010
- Buy it on DVD (Amazon)
- Buy it on Blu-ray (Amazon)
- Read our review
- Daniel Barber interview
- Harry Brown - UK Premiere in photos
- Harry Brown Photo Gallery