REVIEW: Michael Caine Gets Violent, Mesmerizing Showcase in Harry Brown
Near the beginning of English director Daniel Barber's Harry Brown, a woman pushing a baby stroller is first terrorized, then shot dead, by a couple of cracked-out teenagers whizzing around on a too-small bicycle, like insane circus clowns out of your worst nightmare. We don't see who these kids are, but in the film's opening -- a snippet of grainy footage that looks to have been shot with a cell phone -- we see a brood of hooligans crunched together in small, enclosed space, getting high and brandishing weapons that we can't get a clear look at. This is just the beginning of the pileup of horrors Barber has in store for us as he spins out his aggressively sordid story of fear and ineffectual police protection in a South London council estate, and it's not for the faint of heart. There's just one problem: Stay away, and you'll miss Michael Caine.
Caine plays the Harry Brown of the title, a pensioner living in that council estate. (The picture was shot in and around South London's Elephant and Castle district; Caine himself grew up in the area.) Harry's wife has just died after what we can surmise was a long hospitalization; years earlier, he'd buried a daughter. Next, his best friend on the estate, Leonard (David Bradley), the guy he plays chess with down at the pub, becomes a victim of the estate's lawless teenage thugs, who hold their drug-addled war councils in a graffiti-sprayed underground passageway that the fearful residents have learned to avoid.
Harry may seem like a meek, slow-moving chess player, but he used to be a Marine (we'll later learn that he spent time "keeping the peace" in Northern Ireland). And when he realizes that the crisp, buttoned-up detective (played by Emily Mortimer) who comes to the estate to investigate Leonard's murder has only a feeble grasp of the anxiety and intimidation he and his neighbors face every day, he takes action himself, though he's not particularly happy about it.
Harry Brown is an aggressively violent and unsavory picture. I say that not to downplay the problem of urban violence in the United Kingdom (by all accounts, the problem is serious), but to point out that Barber doesn't know how to use brutal violence for maximum effect -- he seems to believe that if you just put it up there on-screen, it will speak for itself. Barber is clearly trying to make a straight-up social-problems picture -- there's nothing stylish or stylized about the violence in Harry Brown, and it's not presented for the audience's delectation. Even so, Barber, working from a script by Gary Young, works hard to make sure we get that he's dealing with really gritty stuff: The movie features two carelessly tattooed crackhead gun dealers, enterprising lads who also have a sideline in pornography featuring out-of-it, doped-up, presumably underage girls -- plus, they grow their own weed. These guys make the worst low-lifes in Trainspotting look like the Dead End Kids, and Barber wallows a bit too gleefully in their depravity. The sequence in which Harry, seemingly innocently, infiltrates their lair is extremely tense, but it also feels like a cheat, as if Barber felt the need to exaggerate the worthlessness of these scumbags to justify what Harry has to do. The movie is as hepped-up as they are, and true criminal viciousness doesn't require the extra hype.
Barber also conveniently downplays any public response, on the part of law officials or average citizens, to the murder of that young mother. She's addressed only as a news report; her murder may have been an effective way to open the story, but the movie never mentions her again -- she's just a convenient device. No matter how much this particular council estate may resemble a lawless town, it's hard to believe a mother murdered in front of her child wouldn't stir more of a public outcry.
Pages: 1 2