Michael Caine, or more correctly Sir Michael Caine is one of those actors who never seems to take any time off, making one movie after another. Three of his films are upcoming in 2012 and two others in production for 2013. Something must have been going on in 2009, because the only movie for that year with his name on it was Harry Brown. He made the most of it however in playing the role of a dowdy old pensioner in a head to head with murdering thugs, a performance that brings out the actor’s rich palette of experience applied with the quietest and subtlest of acting skills.
Directed by Daniel Barber, Harry Brown is a British film with Hollywood antecedents, most notably Clint Eastwood’s 2008 picture Gran Torino, and the earlier Deathwish with Charles Bronson. It’s the old story of the average man reaching a point where enough is enough and justice becomes a personal crusade. The difference in Daniel Barber’s take on this theme is that his average man-Harry Brown is an old and nearly decrepit retiree suffering from emphysema, a man we might expect to fall asleep before he can pull the trigger.
The story is set in modern day Britain, in a particular corner where drugs and guns are the currency of the day. Harry Brown is a modest and law-abiding man, a retired marine living in a desolate central London public-housing block, living a kind of hell, silently watching from his apartment windows as violent hoodlums openly sell drugs, and for a laugh beat and murder strangers. Harry’s wife is dying in a local hospital and apart from sitting by her bedside, he spends his days in solitude, playing the occasional game of chess at a nearby pub with his best friend, Leonard. Unlike Harry, Leonard has been singled out for torment by the local rowdies and confesses his determination to fight back. Harry warns against it, but Leonard is unhearing and subsequently killed by several of the gang. The death of his friend is the catalyst that sets ex-marine Harry on a path of brutal justice.
Harry Brown is another powerhouse performance from two-time Oscar winner, Michael Caine, who builds his character from a quiet watching through windows into a determined and unemotional killer. The beauty in this performance comes from the vulnerability of old age that much more than the ultimate violence is what defines Harry. A degree of discomfort comes with watching Caine as Harry, not because we condone his vigilante justice, but because the actor’s stony, yet heartrending presence wins us over. There are no Stallone type heroics; Caine’s Harry Brown is a tired, old man with health issues and physical limits. What is good to see here is an actor playing his age in a film about violence.
Daniel Barber makes his feature directorial debut in this gritty treatment of British social ills, drawing the viewer into his grim, oppressive setting of dim lighting, gloominess and camera angles that mimic a surveillance camera. With overcast skies, dark shadows and a graffiti spattered London neighborhood Barber has made the qualities of fear and despair tactile with a production design that underlines ugly realism. Alternating scenes of quiet, civilized lives indoors with the chaotic frenzy outside, leaves us to wonder if a solution is even possible in a world where police are either helpless, too busy or uncaring. In more than one instance Barber makes use of of cell phones and video cameras to highlight the random violence. Street thugs and gun salesmen are keen on making home movies of their killings and rapes and some of the ugliest violations are made more potent by their shrinkage to the small screen.
The movie makes a bitter statement about the cynicism of inner city youth and the nightmares that are unleashed when problems are allowed to fester by impotent police officers. Hardly a necessary warning at this point, but Harry Brown is not a movie for average fans of Finding Nemo and The Sound of Music. On the other hand, if you’re a Michael Caine fan and if your usual movie ticket is geared toward realistic drama with an R rating, then look for Harry Brown on Netflix, or at your local library. A dark tale well told.