“Michael Caine is Harry Brown,” so reads the opening title, and not without reason, since not only does the film’s story take place in the Elephant and Castle, the London district Caine is from, but Harry Brown is a character who might be any number of earlier Michael Caine characters in his later years. The film itself is the first feature from director Daniel Barber and is made from the first screenplay by Gary Young to be turned into a movie with much of a release.
Looked at on its simplest terms, Harry Brown is a kind of geriatric Death Wish (1974). It operates on a similar vigilante premise (see also Neil Jordan’s The Brave One from 2007), with a regular citizen taking over where the law fails. Much of the film plays in that key—right down to creating bad guys who are so bad that it’s impossible not to delight in seeing them meet their match in Harry Brown. Morally, that’s on the dubious side, but I’m inclined to think that the film intends for you to realize that—and to realize that this capacity is in us all. This isn’t a film that means to let the viewer off the hook so easily. Moreover, Harry Brown is not blind to the dangers inherent in—even caused by—vigilanteism. Harry’s vengeance—satisfying though it is on a visceral level—carries a very high price, since it serves to set off riots in the council flats (British version of projects).
I think this reading is supported by the presentation, with its myriad unanswered questions, especially as concerns the title character and his old friend, Len (David Bradley, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince), whose death fuels the plot. Len falls prey to the drug-dealing hooligans who infest the council flats where Harry and Len live. We know very little about either Harry or Len—and we don’t witness Len’s murder until long after the event. The few things we do find out, we’re merely allowed to pick up or guess at. The film keeps the pair’s lives prior to the action out of range, which serves to make the audience complicit in the neglect the world shows them. These are just two old men.That’s their entire existence. Who were they? Why is Harry the only person at Len’s funeral? (In a nicely bitter touch, Len’s graveside service is passed by a posh funeral procession with flowers that spell out, “Goodbye Granddad.”) There are no answers, just hints.
Do not, however, get the idea that this is meant to be a character study of loneliness, old age and poverty—though it is certainly that. This is very much in the crime/thriller mode—and it can be and often is brutally violent. Some of the scenes are deeply disturbing. The scene where Harry goes to buy a gun from a drug dealer/drug addict/pornographer/weapons supplier is a monument to creepy seediness. You almost feel like you need to shower after seeing it—in no small part because of the shrewdness of its construction that goes from Harry appearing to be hopelessly out of his depth to him being in complete control of the situation. Suddenly, we know how much we simply don’t know about the man—and by extension, how much we don’t know about so many people we might think of in “just another old duffer” terms.
The film is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. While I won’t deny that it works within its own confines as drama, the film’s final act is a little on the overplotted side. All vigilante films seem to have a problem of not quite knowing how to get out of their own basic concept, and this one is no exception. Plus, Harry’s emphysema is used mostly as a plot device—on more than one occasion—but conveniently forgotten at other times. Still, Harry Brown is a very good film—albeit very violent and very bloody—and contains yet another splendid Michael Caine performance. I’m not complaining too much based on those grounds alone—and I’ve seen the film twice now. Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, drug use and sexual content.