DVD of the Week – Review of Harry Brown (2010)


Harry Brown (Michael Caine) is a pensioner living in a public housing estate in a depressed working class urban area. He is alone in his tidy apartment; his wife of many years is dying in the hospital. His uneventful daily routine is built around visiting his Cath and spending companionable hours talking and playing chess in the local pub with his longtime friend Len (David Bradley).

However, the estate is increasingly terrorized by a group of sociopath hooligans who deal drugs on the side, and they have targeted Len in a campaign of vicious harassment. When Len is found murdered and the police prove ineffectual- just as they had when Len went to them for help- Harry determines to take justice into his own hands.

Harry Brown earns a qualified recommendation. It is a high concept project. The concept is solid, but it’s not substantial enough to bear the full weight of the drama. The film’s shortcomings also suggest inexperience, an impression substantiated by a glance at the filmmakers’ resumes. This is director Daniel Barber’s second film and screenwriter Gary Young has just a few writing credits.

The concept, or gimmick if you like, is to make a respectable old man the vigilante in a formulaic vigilante drama-thriller. The superficial unlikeliness of Harry Brown as vigilante perversely makes the plot more credible than a typical film in the genre. His targets don’t see him as a threat, so they let their guard down around him. The detective in charge of Len’s case fingers Harry as prime suspect in the killings that follow, but her colleague and superior scoff at her suspicions. To paraphrase: You really think an old man with health problems who’s never caused no trouble for nobody took out those druggies and drug dealers?

The device also heightens the suspense by creating an abiding uneasiness in the audience. There’s something wrong with this picture, with a nice old guy turning cold-blooded executioner, with the culture of lawlessness that pushed him to it and effectively obscures his involvement and motives.

The best thing the movie has going for it is Michael Caine. His performance makes us feel the grief, fury, lonesomeness, and disgust that drive Harry to get a gun and use it. Some of his dialogue is clumsily written, and some of the props and situations he’s given to work with are not exactly original, but where Harry is concerned, Caine sells the script and then some.

The movie feeds the audience some backstory crumbs to explain why Harry is a successful vigilante (he was a Marine; he served in Northern Ireland). Or to give a better feel for how the movie plays: it feeds us the same crumb repeatedly. Harry Brown falters noticeably whenever its focus shifts away from Harry Brown.

Emily Mortimer, usually so fine, seems lost as the investigating detective. The film’s early momentum is broken by a rote interrogation sequence that goes and on to no purpose. Moreover, unlike the scenes set on or around the housing estate, the police station-set scenes are generally unconvincing and as often as not cliched There is the positively painful moment when the detective, sadder but wiser, walks out of the higher-ups’ self-congratulatory press conference….

Many of the scenes at the estate are genuinely convincing, however, and often effectively atmospheric. The direction, cinematography, and production design combine to create a dark-toned, dismal, forbidding habitat. The best sequence of the film pulls it all together when Harry goes to buy a gun from a low-level dealer who grows some of his own stock and samples too much of it.

Other new releases this week: Marmaduke, Red Riding Trilogy, Why Did I Get Married Too?

6 responses to “DVD of the Week – Review of Harry Brown (2010)

  1. My sentiments exactly. We all know that Michael Caine can deliver anything and this film is proof, along with his quick appearances in Nolan’s Batman films and Inception. But Helen, you neglected to mention Death Wish (1947), the obvious inspiration behind this film. In Death Wish, Charles Bronson lost his wife and his daughter was molested and his revenge was to pretend to be a bum on the streets that would get close enough to criminals so that he could kill them. Here, Harry Brown is that bum except that he’s just an old man with an awesome trigger finger.

    I think this film works well due to its disturbing subjects (the youth), the level of on screen violence that pull no punches, Caine himself, and the idea of the invisible vigilante. I really like this movie also, but it’s too disturbing for me to view a second time.

    • Sorry, it’s 1974 not 1947…

      • I have to admit I haven’t seen Death Wish. You make an interesting comparison.

        After I left the theater I kept thinking of things that didn’t work, but while I was watching it I was riveted whenever Caine was on screen (which is most of the time). That’s why I give it a recommendation, and I don’t usually go for vigilante movies either.

  2. Your review first caused me to flash back to “Gran Torino”, but as I read on it does sound more like “Death Wish”. Did you see many similarities to GT?

    • There’s a superficial similarity in the set-up: old man left alone by his wife’s death confronts youth violence in his changed neighborhood. The similarities pretty much end there however. _Harry Brown_ hews to the vigilante movie formula. _Gran Torino_ is a much more ambitious film that resists the genre label (for example, in the strong focus on the inter-generational friendship and near-sociological interest in defining masculinity). The dissimilarity of the endings is critical. _Harry Brown_ builds to the expected scene of cathartic extra-legal violence, whereas _Gran Torino_ ends with a willing sacrifice that restores the broken public order.

      • Yeah. Gran Torino is about a man coming to terms with who he really is, a hard boiled racist bastard. But that’s a popular and realistic American persona. Harry Brown is a man who channels his inner killer and justifies himself as a vigilante. As a marine he was killing people but it was during several wars so it was always justified but now he makes himself into a murderer, which down to brass tacks is what a vigilante is. The film gets us to sympathize with a killer and it’s easy to do so because he’s not a psychopath.


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