Harry Brown: Daniel Barber’s Tale of Revenge, Starring Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer

Reviewed by Tim Grierson
Though it will inevitably draw comparisons to similarly themed recent films like “Gran Torino” and “Taken,” director Daniel Barber’s Harry Brown presents its own take on a lone man who turns to violence in order to seek justice.
Buoyed considerably by Michael Caine’s reserved, empathetic performance as the titular avenger, this despairing drama is ultimately less interested in revenge fantasies than it is in exploring themes of aging and urban crime.
Living in a rundown, crime-ridden section of Britain, senior citizen Harry Brown (Caine) is about to lose his ailing wife, which leaves him with only his friend Leonard (David Bradley) as a companion. But right after his wife’s death, Harry must contend with more bad news: Leonard has been murdered, and suspicion immediately turns to Noel (Ben Drew) and his gang of young hooligans who have turned Harry’s neighborhood into a haven for drug dealers.
A driven detective named Frampton (Emily Mortimer) tries unsuccessfully to pull confessions out of Noel and his partners, but their steely, snotty resolve proves too much for her. Frustrated by Frampton’s lack of progress, Harry decides to take matters into his own hands. A former Marine, he has ample experience with firearms, although he gave up that life after he met his wife. But now he decides to return to that world, tracking down Noel’s goons and torturing them until he can prove that they killed his friend.
A gritty drama that slowly evolves into a low-key thriller, “Harry Brown” represents Daniel Barber’s feature directorial debut after earning an Oscar nomination for his short film “The Tonto Woman.” Shot with exquisite dreariness by cinematographer Martin Ruhe (who showed equal skill in his work for the Ian Curtis biopic “Control”), “Harry Brown” exists in a world of permanently overcast skies and endless urban blight. Barber allows the miserable atmosphere to permeate every moment of Harry’s life, so much so that we feel the character’s sad resignation implicitly.
Such an overriding sense of despair and helplessness is crucial since Gary Young’s screenplay requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Though Young establishes Harry’s decorated military history in a few lines of dialogue early in the film, it’s still a stretch to accept that a man close to 80 is able to expertly outshoot and outwit criminals that are a quarter of his age. Still, Barber handles this potential problem by limiting Harry’s violent encounters with these thugs to mostly plausible scenarios that don’t require balletic action choreography. To be fair, some of Harry’s elaborate strategies to defeat Noel’s men risk credibility, pushing the character into the realm of superheroes like Batman, but for the most part “Harry Brown” feels appropriately small-scaled in its action sequences.
Of course, a large amount of the credit needs to go to Caine. In his 70s, he’s long removed from action-adventure fare like “The Man Who Would Be King” or his portrayal of gangster Jack Carter in the memorable ‘70s crime film “Get Carter,” a movie whose storyline “Harry Brown” somewhat echoes. But Caine makes Harry resonate by always emphasizing his grizzled, weary spirit. What’s perhaps best about Caine’s portrayal is how he eschews any attempt to make Harry an iconic everyman. Indeed, there’s nothing inordinately heroic or “cool” about Harry, which makes his dangerous mission to take out Noel’s gang all the more suspenseful and human.
In light of the recent hit films “Taken” and “Gran Torino,” “Harry Brown” can’t help but feel familiar in its depiction of a well-armed loner seeking vengeance. But unlike “Taken” with its pumped-up action, or “Gran Torino” with its heavily symbolic riffing on star Clint Eastwood’s onscreen persona, “Harry Brown” is a more complete film in that its riveting central character’s dilemma also serves as a portal for broader discussions about societal concerns like crime and mortality. Harry’s quest is about revenge, but the film also frames it as a scared older man’s response to a world that’s gotten coarser and more frightening as he enters his twilight years. With his wife gone and his best friend murdered, Harry has very little keeping him alive, and so his fearless journey into this criminal underworld can also be interpreted as some sort of acceptance of his own eventual demise. The film’s exploration of inner-city crime can sometimes lead to reactionary, hyperbolic depictions of Noel’s gang, but on the whole these tangential themes add texture to a somewhat predictable revenge scenario.
As the detective determined to find Leonard’s killer, Emily Mortimer can come across as too meek for a character who’s supposed to be a hardened cop. Much better is Ben Drew, who plays the repulsive Noel. Drew is a London-based rapper, and he infuses Noel with a sleazily charismatic vitality that’s perfect for such a despicably immoral thug. Liam Cunningham does solid supporting work as a neighborhood bartender who ends up having an important role in the film’s outcome, but Iain Glen and Charlie Creed-Miles are part of the story’s weakest section, playing, respectively Frampton’s arrogant superior officer and her lazy partner. “Harry Brown” mostly avoids suspense-film clichés, so it’s a shame that the plot ends up relying on needless roadblocks created by Frampton’s incompetent fellow officers.

Cast

Michael Caine (Harry Brown)

Emily Mortimer (D.I. Frampton)
Charlie Creed-Miles (D.I. Hicock)
David Bradley (Leonard Attwell)
Iain Glen (S.I. Childs)
Sean Harris (Stretch)
Ben Drew (Noel Winters)
Jack O’Connell (Marky)
Jamie Downey (Carl)
Lee Oakes (Dean)
Joseph Gilgun (Kenny)
Liam Cunningham (Sid Rourke)
Credits
MARV Partners and UK Film Council present In Association with HanWay Films, Prescience and Framestore Features a MARV Partners Production
Producers: Kris Thykier, Matthew Vaughn, Matthew Brown, Keith Bell
Executive Producers: Christos Michaels, Reno Antoniades, Tim Smith, Paul Brett, Steve Norris, Tim Haslam
Director: Daniel Barber
Screenplay: Gary Young
Cinematography: Martin Ruhe
Editor: Joe Walker
Music: Martin Phipps & Ruth Barrett
Additional Music: Pete Tong & Paul Rogers
Production designer: Kave Quinn
Running time: 102 minutes

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