‘Harry Brown’ opens with a group of youths initiating a fellow hoodie into their ASBO culture. Then we cut to a pair motorcycling through a park and a woman gets accidentally shot, the pair flee the scene and get run over. The whole thing is shot on a camera phone. It’s a visceral and arresting beginning in what is a stylish film. But something is lacking in this crime thriller by director Daniel Barber.
Michael Caine stars as the eponymous Harry Brown, an elderly ex-Royal Marine, who lives alone on a grotty estate terrorised by gangs of local youths. His dying wife lies in hospital and when Harry receives a call telling him that she is about to expire, Harry has to take the long route to the hospital, fearing to walk through an underpass occupied by the youths.
His one friend, Leonard Atwell (David Bradley), is sick of being intimidated and one night, pushed to the edge, he decides to show the miscreants a lesson – with a foot-long knife. Leonard is murdered and Harry decides upon vengeance.
The plot takes a while to gain dramatic torque but the film is rife with detailed shots. The camera lingers on Caine’s eyes as Harry drinks a lonely cup of tea in a grey flat. We take a voyeuristic look through his curtains at youths committing crimes, and feel Harry’s sense of impotence at being too powerless to get involved. There is an obvious social element to this film – ‘Broken Britain’ as the Tories would have it –and Harry exacting his own justice is perhaps what the film suggests we all do.
As social commentary the film doesn’t work due to the fact there’s nothing to suggest the cause of the deviancy, but as a collage of estate crime and the lonely life of a pensioner, the film is authentic. There’s a gritty turn by rapper Ben Drew better known as Plan B and Emily Mortimer portrays an earnest but foolhardy detective.
The ending wakes things up as police try to contain a riot caused by their crack-down on the gangs. The excellent camera work, by Martin Ruhe, takes a steady look as mayhem breaks, evoking memories of the recent Paris riots. When final revenge and peace on the estate is realised, we are left with a film with dubious morals but an authentic atmosphere. An interesting combination that would have been better had we been provided with a strong character to rival Harry Brown on the side of the disaffected youths.