‘Harry Brown’ is a film that has been on my watchlist for a considerable time now, as a result of good reviews from various website and other film critics, as well as my liking for Michael Caine as an actor. When I further inspected the cast more recently and saw the likes of Emily Mortimer, Ben Drew (better known as musician Plan B), Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris and David Bradley, I soon decided that it was time to sit down and watch this dark and violent British crime film.
Harry Brown (Michael Caine) is an elderly ex-marine living on an estate riddled with criminal activity and dominated by gang culture. After the tragic loss of his wife, he confides in long time best friend Leonard Attwell (David Bradley). These two elderly men are clearly terrified by what goes on outside their front door, especially when Leonard finds himself the victim of the mob’s attention, led by Noel Winters (Ben Drew), when they set fire to his flat. In response, Leonard decides that he needs to take matters into his own hands and tries to fight back against the mob, with disastrous consequences. Harry too must decide what action to take; does he stand passively by and watch as criminality engulfs his home, or does he embrace the set of skills he learnt in the marines in his youth and tackle the imminent threat head on?
When looking at British films as an entity, themes of realism and violence are present more often than not, and that is definitely the case with ‘Harry Brown’. This film is certainly not for the faint-hearted, with several violent and graphic scenes throughout. The film’s opening, set in a dimly-lit, claustrophobic underpass, focuses on an initiation of a boy into a gang, before continuing to show a couple of gang members riding a motorbike through a park and opening fire on a random woman with a pram. This really sets the tone for the whole film, as we witness a series of brutal and violent killings from there on in. Why the violence is so impacting is because it feels so real – a sensation achieved through close, handheld camera work that puts us right in the thick of the action, an authentic setting and acting performances that compliment the tone of the film. Whilst the degree of violence and the narrative were obviously embellished, there were a lot of scenes that felt almost documentary-esque; as though we were just dropping in on the every day lives of the people that are affected by this sort of criminality.
Sadly, Michael Caine, or more his character, were a little out of place in this film – my main issue being that it all seemed a little far-fetched. Somehow, an elderly vigilante roaming the streets trying to clean up the neighbourhood just didn’t ring true and let the film down somewhat. Caine performed his role well, especially the openings scenes where I thought he portrayed the loneliness of old age and widowhood superbly, but after that it all got out of hand. There were other performances on show, however, that were nothing short of superb. Amongst a band of truly detestable youths, Ben Drew’s performance stands out. Foul-mouthed doesn’t come close to describing his audible contribution to the film and visually he is just as foul. There was a sequence of ten minutes where the characters of Ben Drew, the superb Jack O’Connell and Jaime Downey are all interviewed by D.I. Frampton (Emily Mortimer) which was really difficult and uncomfortable to watch, as each of them launched a scathing attack on the young detective across the table. In terms of discomfort when watching a scene, however, I don’t think I have ever witnessed anything quite like a fifteen-minute scene starring Sean Harris as a heroin-addicted weapons dealer. The physical transformation of Harris for this role was so remarkable that I didn’t recognise him at first. He becomes a grotesquely thin (think Christian Bale in The Machinst as a guide), genuinely malevolent individual. The culmination of his nauseating appearance, the sex tape of him raping an unconscious girl that plays incessantly in the background for the entirety of this scene, and the fact he has another girl in the corner choking on her own vomit as she suffers from a heroin overdose – all whilst he smokes crack cocaine through the barrel of his pistol – was so disturbing that I had to pause the film for a second and compose myself. Don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this scene was certainly one of the most uncomfortable fifteen minutes of film I have ever experienced, and huge credit must go to Sean Harris and director Daniel Barber to have both the ability and the bravery to attempt such a scene.
This is a very good film, but not one to attempt to watch for some casual viewing. I expected violence and it certainly delivered. Complimented by some superb performances, under impressive direction, ‘Harry Brown’ certainly deserves the “best of British” stamp of approval. My only reservation was, as stated previously, that an old man on a revenge mission just seemed a little ridiculous. The role would have been better suited to a younger protagonist, but the whole point of this film seemed, to me at least, to shock the audience and break convention. So maybe Caine’s inclusion was a good thing? It’s an aspect that will divide opinion, but on the whole it shouldn’t take away from this unyielding story of Britain’s criminal underworld.
Director: Daniel Barber
Starring: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Ben Drew, Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris