How long are we supposed to stand back and do nothing? How long are we supposed to pull or drapes shut, and pretend that things we know are wrong just aren’t happening in our backyard? Is it possible just to keep your head down and hope it all goes away…or will we eventually have to get our hands dirty when trouble comes knocking.
If HARRY BROWN is to believed, it’s impossible to stay above the fray…and sometimes even the unlikeliest of people will get dragged into the fracas.
Harry Brown (Michael Caine) lives on a council estate in south London. It’s a shitty neighbourhood, and a place where reckless young thugs have made innocent people afraid of setting foot out their front door. However, Harry has managed so far – mostly by sticking to his routine, and ignoring what’s happening outside of his own front door.
However, one of Harry’s only friends isn’t so ambivalent. Leonard (David Bradley) has been harassed endlessly, and now conceals a bayonet on his person for protection should push come to shove with the young thugs. Harry begs him not to take matters into his own hands, and instead to go to the police. Unfortunately that very night, Leonard gets into an altercation with the punks which costs him his life.
The next morning, when detective Frampton (Emily Mortimer) comes knocking to tell harry the bad news, Harry is very sad for about sixty seconds, then he lashes out at the cops for not being able to do their job. It’s here that Harry seems to have seen enough. He decides to take it upon himself to avenge his murdered friend, and try to restore some order to the slum his neighbourhood has become.
HARRY BROWN really all boils down to Michael Caine and his ability to create such a distinct character. Harry is a man of few words, but we can see in his routines and his habits what sort of a meticulous man he is. He’s not only the sort of man who does the same thing every day, but he’s very particular in how he does it. This is to say that not only does every morning begin with a cup of tea and piece of toast…but that breakfast is immediately followed by sweeping the crumbs from the table and washing the dishes. So perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised when Harry finally takes matters into his own hands. But we are – making his decisions all the more unsettling.
Harry might have a lot of fight left in him, but he often moves around as though a badly masoned cobblestone will send him face-first into the sidewalk. Thus when he knocks on the thugs’ door looking to get a handgun and put his plan in motion, we are filled with a sense of dread. So much so, that the only thing we can think of that will let him walk out alive, is the fact that his name gets top billing in the film.
Much to our surprise though, harry is as meticulous in his vengeance as he is in sweeping up crumbs and doing his dishes. Its this part of the character that makes Michael Caine’s performance so amazing to watch. With his every expression and gesture, he embodies a man who has gone to great lengths to put distance between himself and his violent past as a soldier. He urges us all to trust the authorities to protect us, and the sadness in his eyes almost turns it into a plea. But when those very same authorities let him down, those pleading eyes turn scolding in a hurry.
Then, once Caine is finished scolding, he takes us on a boat ride down the darkened river. The story of HARRY BROWN gets grim in a hurry…continuing on where a story like GRAN TORINO would be wishing it a goodnight and good luck. Deeply unsettling, and stunning in its grittiness, HARRY BROWN wants to tell us about the violence that even the most seemingly passive person is capable of. This person might hold a desire to stay out of the fray…and this person might believe that they’re a changed person. However, what this film understands, is that we all have that one particular nerve, that when pressed can bring out a side of ourselves we truly wanted to leave behind.
HARRY BROWN is ultimately a simple story elevated to an exceptional film through subtle direction, gloriously dreary tone, and a stellar performance. Having become accustomed to see Caine cast as the wise and docile elder statesman, it’s a welcome sight to see him walk as a badass again. Such a badass in fact, that I’d wager he could take on every single one of The Expendables, come out with barely a scratch, and still make it home in time for tea.