High on drugs, two youths on a motorbike screech around a London housing estate. Filmed as a dizzying point-of-view sequence at the start of ‘Harry Brown’, the grey English sky wheels overhead and buildings streak by in a silvery blur. Viewed at this speed even the ugly estate looks lyrical.
Random shots are fired and a mother pushing a pram slumps onto the concrete. The action screeches to a halt as we cut to the home of pensioner Harry Brown (Michael Caine). Harry scrapes burnt toast into the sink and shuffles through his morning routine with methodical punctuality, lonely and alone. He lives in the same estate as the youths yet his world – sedate and law-abiding – couldn’t be more different than their dog-eat-dog hedonism. But as the film’s tagline warns, ‘justice is coming’ and the two worlds soon clash.
Cinematographer Martin Ruhe (‘Control’) sets the film skilfully against England’s low, claustrophobic skies and the muted still life of Harry’s flat. Director Daniel Barber (‘The Tonto Woman’) depicts Harry with compassion, rather than pathos, and Caine is wonderful as an old man, once happy, whose life is draining of colour and meaning. Caine manages to subsume his larger-than-life persona into Harry’s gentle melancholy but, as the film progresses, we discover Harry was once a marine and Caine as we know him from so many films – charismatic and cocksure with a hint of violence – threatens to emerge.
England’s depressed housing estates may appear bleak and barren but they’ve long been fertile ground for filmmakers to seed gritty, realist dramas. ‘Harry Brown’ follows in this tradition of social realism, successfully, until it shifts into a vigilante action flick. When estate youths deprive Harry of his last comfort it’s Caine who strides out, literally from the shadows, as Harry becomes a vigilante pensioner with nothing left to lose.
There’s satisfaction for audiences in both genres but melding the two into one movie is problematic. The credibility of characters that have been well set-up in a realist environment becomes strained, most notably ‘the villains’. In vigilante films, unless the villains are irredeemably evil the audience feels uncomfortable seeing them mercilessly dispatched by our anti-hero. So, by the end of ‘Harry Brown’, the baddies are bad to the point of caricature: pierced, tattooed, disfigured and dirty. One scene in particular stretches belief to breaking point as we see them immersed in every vice possible: prostitution, drugs, guns and porn – all at once.
If you’re not overly sensitive to mismatched genres, and especially if you enjoy the neat-and-tidy retaliation of a well-executed vigilante flick, you’ll enjoy ‘Harry Brown’. Thematically, it’s well summed-up by Harry’s old mate Len (David Bradley) when he says, tremulously, over a quiet ale and game of chess: “I’m scared, and I’m not going to take it any more”.