Friday, 18 February 2011

Review: Harry Brown

(written on film's release, hence the opening line)

I've just come back from seeing one of the most disturbing films I have seen in a long time. Maybe the body count is in the single figures, but some of the characters portrayed onscreen are so believably nasty (I live on an estate in South London, so I see people a bit like them living on my block) that each and every act of violence hit home like a sledgehammer.

This film might be marketed on Michael Caine, but it absolutely belongs to director Daniel Barber. Apparently this is his first film, but apart from the odd dry angle here and there (especially the graveyard scenes), you really wouldn't know it. A bravura pre-credits sequence, shot as if through a mobile phone, sets up the tone for the whole film. This opening scene, although staggeringly accomplished and immediately unsettling the viewer, is stylistically out of keeping with the style of the rest of the movie, and almost feels like it was tacked on at the last minute. Indeed, nothing in the sequence bears any relation to the rest of the plot, or even the characters.

Caine's performance is every bit as solid as you would expect, unshowy, and with the occasional wink towards some of his past characters. Of particular note is a scene in which he tells a dying victim an anecdote from his days as a marine in Northern Ireland. It is the first time we meet Harry Brown the cold-blooded killer, as removed from Harry Brown the chess-playing pensioner, and the scene sets up his moral and psychological stance with such alarming impact that it never needs to be referenced again. Indeed, a septuagenarian pensioner wielding knives and multiple firearms on a rampage of torture and death seems completely logical from that point on.

And that's the movie's biggest trick. That's how it hoodwinks you. This is not a cartoon or wish fulfilment, like Rambo or Taken, or any number of other ageing revenge/vigilante movies. The film feels so immediately, intimately real that you are in every minute of it: for a revenge drama, it's bloody scary.

Which leads me onto my next round of shout outs: the baddies. With the exception of an underwritten and possibly miscast Liam Cunningham, most of the lowlifes in this movie are brilliantly played. Obviously Ben Drew as Noel, the film's teenaged antagonist, gets a mention for his embodiment of everything that plagues the thousands of crumbling estates across Britain. Vicious, amoral and smiling, he is a fantastic counterpoint to Michael Caine. Across the board, the gamut of bit players impress, whether as thugs, junkies, or hoodies. However, particular mention must go to Sean Harris as Stretch, the drugs 'n' guns dealer Harry goes to to acquire his arsenal. Harris blew me away with his reptilian, unblinking take on the character. Itchy but controlled, seeping menace from every pore, he delivers more impact in his 5 minutes of screentime than Ben Drew does in the entire movie. As I remember from a few years ago, even under copious makeup and, again, given very limited screentime, he was the best thing in Creep. But then, no-one saw that, did they? I hope someone gives him a decent role soon.

On the downside, Emily Mortimer is weak, her subplot as good as redundant. This is unfortunate, as the director seems keen to spend as much time as possible following her limping character all the way to a pointless conclusion. Allowing an element of police procedural into the movie might pave the way for the brilliantly staged riots in the closing act, but as the almost comical character of her boss jars with the tone of the rest of the movie, this particular strand is an unwelcome sideline.

I suppose you could argue that there is a moralistic side to the movie, a statement on modern society in the British underclass, but I'd be hard pressed to identify what that statement might be. This film works best as a revenge thriller, pure and simple.

I look forward to Barber's next film, and am interested to see what Nolan gives Caine to do in his next few movies, now that old Mickey has revealed he still has a few teeth left to bare...

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