Harry Brown works his revenge
HARRY BROWN Directed by Daniel Barber. Screenplay by Gary Young. Cinematography by Martin Ruhe, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Iain Glen, Liam Cunningham. Marv Films, 2009. 103 minutes. R.
A familiar narrative arc can’t hide the moral issues rotting out the supposed heart of Harry Brown. The rot’s made almost worse by Michael Caine’s fine acting, an arrow in the heart of the movie’s string of clichés but also a cloak attempting to hide the film’s faults.
Harry Brown has two beginnings and two endings. They’re not framing devices, exactly, since they don’t really match up. The first beginning comes jarringly, jerkingly shot (theoretically on a cell camera): A teen boy gets initiated into a London gang by smoking up and being handed a pistol, with all-too-cinematic results. Then there’s the pub, where eldely gents Harry (Michael Caine) and his friend Len (David Bradley) play chess and toss back Scotch and pints. What do the pensioners (that’s British for elderly men) living on the estate (projects) have to do with the fucked-up, fucked-over, cruel, sly thug kids? Kids who would kill a single mum? That’s in italics because the script has to emphasize just how very, very bad the young guys are by having them deal with women as objects to be threatened, raped and murdered.
But Len and Michael are also men — though men who of course loved their wives and treated them well, and men who would still prefer to treat women with decency — with old war weapons and old war talents popping out at unexpected times.
Len has his father’s WWII bayonet and wants to get back at the kids. Harry, whose wife has just died and who recreates Spassky/Fischer matches on his chessboard, tells Len to go to the police instead. He adds that he was in the Royal Marines, but that he long ago locked that up and threw away the key.
Not so much. Len’s bayonet experience goes awry, and Harry falls into the role of avenging angel.
American audiences, used to everyone having access to a cache of guns, won’t be surprised by the handguns carried by the gang boys, but that’s still a shock in the much more gun-limited U.K. Harry has to figure out how to get access to weapons in order to deal with the killer boys as he wishes. And so the game begins.
Caine, with his large, dark eyes and expressive face, does more work than the film deserves. The audience, naturally, sympathizes with Harry and his desire for revenge, thanks to Caine, and that’s a problem.
The script also makes Alice Frampton, the investigating officer played by Emily Mortimer, sympathetic. Frampton clearly wants to get this job done. She, unlike the other London police, cares about the death of Len and about Harry’s lonely life. Her tightly shot scenes with Caine bring out some of his best acting in this film. The direction and cinematography make Mortimer look super extra fragile in a world of men but also super extra smart (in a world of … oh, you get it), a cliché that only works because her superior (Iain Glen, a wonderfully rodenty Superintendent Childs) is such a supercilious jerk.
The meditative quality that settles over the film’s first third doesn’t melt away for quite some time, and the action scenes remain a surprise, partly because Michael Caine looks so calm no matter what things Harry’s doing. Those include murder, arson, a bizarre Robin Hood-like moment seemingly tossed in to give the audience yet more reason to think Harry has his morals in order, and a nasty torture scene of a young man who’s clearly been tortured quite a bit already. The film comes down firmly on the side of Harry, especially in the final scene with its voiceover and shots of playgrounds, but thinking audiences won’t simply get swept up in the pleasures of the revenge puzzle — How will Harry discover who killed Len? How will he track down everyone involved in the murder? Will he survive, and does he care? — and Caine’s excellent performance. Of course it’s fun to watch the then 75-year-old Caine work as an action hero, and the revenge he takes is undoubtedly on bad, very bad, men. But what happens to the survivors, the police and kids who clashed? Who will fill the power vacuum created by Harry and the police?
Meh, whatever. Violent revenge is fun, and it works. Harry Brown (and Gran Torino, and Rambo, and … ) told me so.