It’s a common misconception that old people are ineffectual members of society except when it comes time to vote. The rejoinder of course is that youth is wasted on the young. The reality is that while old people are mostly physically – and sometimes mentally – less capable, the wealth of experience they have helps even the playing field. Harry Brown is a film that illustrates this balance well in a satisfying, believable manner. Viewers, however, may have to adjust their expectations.
The poor areas of first-world countries are the same all over the planet. In the United States these places are called the projects. In England they’re called estates. Regardless of the nomenclature, the elements are the same: disaffected youths with nothing to occupy their time turn to crime and terrorize the rest of the unfortunate population for entertainment. Harry Brown (Michael Caine) lives on such an estate. He’s an ex-marine with a comatose wife in the hospital and he seems content to live the rest of life in peace. He passes his time at the local pub with his friend Leonard (David Bradley) who also lives on the estate. When Brown loses his wife and Leonard is murdered with all signs pointing to the local group of ruffians, Brown takes matters into his own hands to mete out justice. Standing in his way is a young, but talented Detective Inspector Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) who doesn’t believe that violence is the answer.
By and large, Harry Brown features a vigilante plot, which is typically reserved for younger lead actors who have the vigor to hunt down criminals and the endurance for the rigors that come with that duty. The film could have easily turned absurd if Michael Caine were shown performing the actions of a much younger man. Thankfully, the direction and writing was savvy enough to portray Harry Brown doing exactly what the audience would expect him to do. He uses method and patience to single out his prey rather than charge in guns blazing. Furthermore, Brown also suffers from realistic limitations, like slower reaction times and emphysema. So while the action isn’t as physical as one might expect it’s still satisfying in its own right.
To compensate, the film increases the brutality of the violence, which will shock many viewers – less so for its visual depiction and more so for its believability. The beginning of the film features young delinquents tormenting a mother and toddler by shooting bullets around them. The fun comes to an abrupt end when the mother catches a bullet and the gunmen ride off only to be smashed by a lorry. The entire sequence is caught on a handheld camera, further adding to the gritty realism. Harry Brown continually evokes the images viewers hopefully don’t want to believe, but realistically understand are true.
The acting is strong throughout, with Michael Caine offering a textured performance that will gain audiences’ sympathies; however, he never quite reaches the level of rage needed in some scenes. Emily Mortimer is also solid and believable, but she doesn’t have much time or dialogue to work with to really build a foil to Harry Brown, making her speech to him near the end seem to come out of nowhere. The subway gang – taken as one, multifaceted character – delivers the strongest performance of all. It’s easy to envision a variation of the gang existing in any urban area around the world. Individual members are truly menacing, while younger, newer members are appropriately unsure of themselves. The gang and other miscreants in the film are very easy to dislike. They are unscrupulous, violent and just plain abhorrent, but their behavior never slips beyond the realm of realism.
It would be misleading to say that Harry Brown is ‘entertaining’ or ‘fun to watch’. The subject matter is depressing and the violence is a little too real. What Harry Brown excels at is catharsis. The titular character exemplifies the private hope that one determined individual can truly make a positive change against all odds. That’s a message everyone can appreciate.