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Harry (Michael Caine), a pensioner with a past, takes on the gangs in his crime-ridden housing estate.

2 out of 4 stars

Country
USA
Language
English

Harry Brown

  • Directed by Daniel Barber
  • Written by Gary Young
  • Starring Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer
  • Classification: 18A

The stark direction, the brittle performances, the impoverished setting, the scatological dialogue, everything about the film screams out "Gritty social realism." Everything, that is, except the plot, which shouts "Eye-rolling melodrama." Consequently, there's a fault line the size of San Andreas running right down the middle of Harry Brown. On one side, it's all compellingly believable; on the other, it's simply incredible. We do our best to straddle the rift but, in the end, the gulf proves too wide, the contrast too great, and a tumbling movie takes us down with it.

Best, then, to savour the early frames, before the wonky story has a chance to burst the balloon of our suspended disbelief. The place is a "housing estate" in the suburbs of contemporary London, yet don't be fooled by the label - there's nothing stately about this concrete slab of tenements. It's a slum, scarred by graffiti, dripping with addicts and ruled by gangs at the business end of pistols and knives.

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But it's also Harry Brown's long-time home. A pensioner recently widowed, Harry (Michael Caine) watches the daily mayhem from his fifth-floor window, walks blocks out of his way to avoid the seething knots of hooded youths, and regularly repairs to the pub for a quiet game of chess with his last friend in the world. When that friend dies at the whim of casual violence, stabbed for the sin of talking back to some mouthy kids, an old man is alone and bereft, apparently helpless in a lawless jungle.

Director David Barber films these initial developments with a passionate eye, alternating smartly between hand-held shots to capture the brute energy of the gangs and extended, static takes to convey the entrapment of his aged protagonist. And when an inexperienced police inspector (Emily Mortimer) arrives to investigate the murder, rounding up a quartet of suspects, Barber breathes new life into the interrogation-scene staple. Here, confident that neither witnesses nor evidence links them to the assault, these toughs are menacingly obscene and aggressive even with the cops, who seem cowed and passive and, quite literally, outgunned.

As always, blame for such a broken system is easy to assign - families without fathers, schools without education, marketplaces without jobs, laws without teeth, drugs without end. But in the here and now, what's to be done? Well, cue that unlikely plot and shine a spotlight on Mr. Brown, who, a handy spot of exposition informs us, is a trained ex-Marine with hard experience in Northern Ireland. Yes, Old Harry gets mad before turning into Dirty Harry to get even, gunning down hooligans aplenty despite the tiny inconvenience of his chronic emphysema. Welcome to an unfolding episode of "the vigilante pensioner." Hey, if Eastwood could do it in Gran Torino, why not Caine here?

The wonder is that, even when the yarn contorts absurdly into kitchen-sink unrealism, both Caine's acting and Barber's direction remain affecting and effective - the one poignant, the other suspenseful. So a sequence in a den of needle-scarred addicts is white-knuckle intense, as is the climax where, to the flaming backdrop of an estate erupting in riot, the principals gather for a bullet-ridden standoff worthy of Tarantino. The result is an odd mix of push and pull - we're viscerally sucked into a conceit that our logic firmly rejects.

Then again, that odd mix is familiar too. Indeed, this is a British film that suffers from the same problem as many recent British novels. Ian McEwan's are an example: His set-piece scenes are superb but the narrative that links them often feels contrived and suspect. There on the page, and here on the screen, the setting and the characterization and the mood seem dead-accurate - it's the invented bits between that put us off. Maybe there's something in the English water.

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