Friday, 4 December 2009

Film Review: Harry Brown

(Directed by Daniel Barber, running time 103 minutes)

It’s been nearly 40 years since the British crime classic Get Carter, in what became an iconic role for veteran actor Michael Caine. After all these years, with many film roles ranging from action to comedy, thrillers to dramas, we all in the UK still can’t get enough of the vintage cockney accent. So when I learn that Caine is back again in a lead role for a gritty British crime thriller, I can’t help but rub my hands in anticipation... let’s just hope it’s not a disappointment.

Michael Caine plays Harry Brown, a retired ex-royal marine with his wife on her death bed, spending his last days in run down flat on a crime ridden inner-city estate ruled by gangs of teenage thugs and drug dealers. If things couldn’t get any worse, his last remaining friend Leonard (played by David Bradley), after constant harassment from the local gangs led by young thug Noel Winters (played by Ben Drew), is brutally beaten and stabbed to death after a confrontation. With only himself left and the police seemingly doing nothing, Harry sets out on a violent vendetta against Noel and the gangs.

Now already I have a slight issue with describing the synopsis, since that’s as clear cut as I would like to make it. In truth, there are multiple developments in the story with enough exposition to explain the dark events that unfold. And this film is very dark. From the very beginning, the audience is painted a picture of the most squalid and run down section of London imaginable, no doubt directed at those of you who might have lived in a pleasant rural village most of your life. What’s emphasized most of all however is the teenage thugs that seem to be the embodiment of all things “chav” and “yob”. It’s almost scary how believable these gangs are, especially since we don’t want to believe such people could thrive in a supposedly developed country. Yet they do. But before you start clenching your fists, the film doesn’t leave out the parents in this social matter. Noel’s father for example is in prison, implied being even worse than what is shared on screen while another seems to have been sexually abused by every foster family that took him in. With such unstable backgrounds, it’s nice to know youth violence isn’t completely white washed because Harry Brown is clearly making a political and social comment on modern affairs, and to do this well you have to be rational about it. To put in bluntly, the world around Harry is both dark and gritty yet real and heart breaking.

Yet despite the film’s good intentions, it’s Michael Caine we came to see. Simply put, Caine is definitely giving it his best and it shows. Despite at first appearing as nothing more than a typical old age pensioner, Caine quickly becomes Jack Carter of the 70s, even though he’s now in his 70s. After accidently stabbing a mugger in self defense, the character Harry is quick to return to his World War II days. He then proceeds to harass, taunt and even torture various gang members, all maintaing his status of quiet old man on the estate, hence why the police hesitate at first. Through all the turmoil that arises (especially towards a particularly heavy climax), Harry Brown is a very likable character, and to pull this off despite the inevitable debates over vigilante justice that will arise as a consequence has to say something about how well Caine can still pull off such performances.

Even with a great lead, the message of Harry Brown is a fickle one. Although I mentioned how the antagonists aren’t depicted so black and white, how they should be punished on the other hand is as simple as pulling the trigger. By all means, in most films the audience is supposed to cheer on the final execution, which seems all you can do with such sickening characters on show, but given the concerns raised about the state of the country in the film, there are moments that make you wonder if it was written by an editor for the Daily Mail (even I left the cinema with tight fists). Further more, while Caine is excellent, the film is not Get Carter or the Italian Job. By this I mean the film is so dark and violent in it’s gritty modern setting, there’s no time or space for the dry wit or irony, and considering Caine is essentially playing the same role as the previously mentioned, there’s not even one line to drag the film from it’s depressing little corner that can be disappointing for fans of the classics. Don’t get me wrong, there are one or two lines that, to be low brow, just ooze with cool but because of the tone of the film, almost every thing about it is sad. Saying this now, you should prepare yourself for a heavy ride.

Harry Brown is an odd ball when it comes to its message and while you get what you’d expect from a gritty crime drama/thriller; being dark, violent and crude, because of such a heavy tone, that’s all it is. But what you do get is a well constructed revenge piece/general social statement and above all else it’s hard to complain when Michael Caine still reigns supreme in a leading role that might very well be his last of its kind.

Also stars Charlie Creed Miles, Emily Mortimer and Liam Cunningham.

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