Film review – Harry Brown (2009)

Harry Brown (Michael Caine)
Harry Brown (Michael Caine)

Harry Brown (Michael Caine) is an elderly ex-marine living in a dingy English housing estate apartment. The escalating crime and violence has made Harry so frightened that he won’t even use the underpass near his home. Shortly after his wife dies, Harry’s best friend is murdered, prompting Harry to take swift and brutal revenge on the teenage lowlifes who have turned the neighbourhood into hell.

Harry Brown is a pseudo social-realism film wanting to be taken seriously and yet it is filled with grotesque cartoonish characters and a hysterical message celebrating violent vengeance. If Ken Loach ever directed a film based on a comic written by Frank Miller then the horrid mess that may result would resemble something close to Harry Brown.

The depiction of the young out-of-control criminals is absurdly over-the-top from the very beginning. Harry states that the young thugs simply do what they do for entertainment and the film is happy to exploit and then continue to perpetrate this nasty stereotype of the evil, predatory juvenile delinquency. This is finger wagging at the youth of today at its most extreme and reactionary. The young criminals are represented as either obscenely arrogant, aggressive sociopaths or pathetic, desperate junky scum.

Harry Brown: Harry (Michael Caine) and Stretch (Sean Harris)
Harry (Michael Caine) and Stretch (Sean Harris)

However, the film truly reaches fever pitch when Harry confronts a gun dealer whose scarred and tattooed body resembles a cross between a zombie and Frankenstein’s monster. To then really reinforce the dealer’s evilness we see him stroking his over-dosing girl friend with a bloody syringe before using a gun as a makeshift crack pipe for himself. Any shred of credibility that the film had is obliterated by this comically perverse sequence.

The audience are repeatedly told that the police never do anything and yet we are shown no evidence that this is the case. In fact the main police character D.I. Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) seems to be doing quite a bit and her non knee-jerk reaction investigative procedural approach to police work actually seems to be very effective. Nevertheless, Harry’s actions are continuously depicted as justifiable and the conclusion of the film leaves no doubt that the filmmakers want us to feel that his actions are righteous and worthy of vindication.

Harry Brown: DI Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer)
DI Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer)

Harry Brown is nothing like Caine’s classic gangster film Get Carter, where the audience weren’t supposed to like the character and endorse their actions, nor is it anything like Gran Torino, which was a film about redemption, bridging cultural divides and examining the influence of gang culture on vulnerable young people. Harry Brown is cinema for outraged talkback radio callers and tabloid readers as it revels in blatant fear mongering.

Michael Caine is great but at this stage of his career he deserves much better material. While some people may be able to laugh at the film’s hyperactive representation of youth criminality and just enjoy it as a dumb revenge film, it is depressing to think that there will also be people who confuse it for documentary and endorse its vicious outlook.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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  1. I enjoyed it as a messy British Gran Torino kind of movie. it starts out so slow and quiet that I wasnt sure what was going to happen, then as the movie progressed it became more and more hyper violent and ugly.

    Still a good watch for my money though. Power to the elderly!

  2. In the hands of a lesser actor, this would feel just as clichéd as it sounds. But Caine brings his smarts as well as his baggage to the character, making him more than another mad-as-hell guy with a gun. Nice Review!

  3. “The young criminals are represented as either obscenely arrogant, aggressive sociopaths or pathetic, desperate junky scum.”

    Fits the description of plenty of rats that I’ve encountered on estates where I’ve lived.
    Most veiwers will no doubt get behind the Harry Brown charactor thoughout the movie.
    Perhaps Thomas Caldwell (obviously a chattering-class liberal) should experience life in a stink-hole estate full of scumbags before writing such ‘p.c’ drivel.

  4. Nice one Nelson. Based on a single review of mine you make a crude, reductive and simplistic judgement about me, exposing your endorsement of how the characters are represented in Harry Brown as likewise being crude, reductive and simplistic. It probably wasn’t your intent but with this comment you’ve exposed yourself as somebody who cannot be relied upon to give a reasonable point-of-view.

  5. A common criticism of Harry Brown is that it caters to bottom-feeding tabloid readers, fearful of fantasy hoodies invading their part of suburbia. But I live in a bad area of town – not quite the high rise estate depicted in Harry Brown, in fact quite a bit more genteel. And the depiction of anti-social behaviour in this film is not quite so hyperbolic when you live with it on your doorstep.

    My girlfriend is shouted at and harassed whenever she walks through the estate. We live next door to a schizophrenic alcoholic on one side and a drug dealer on the other. One knocks on my door at 5.00 in the morning, violently convinced that his friend lives in my flat – the other has callers at all hours, parties all weekend and leaves the detritus of such strewn all through public areas. So, yes, aggressive sociopaths and junkie scum. Sometimes, when you reduce things down to the base level, you find a kernel of truth.

  6. I live near the Heygate estate, used for a lot of the “wide” scenes in this movie. Whilst the general setting of this film is perhaps a bit over simplistic, it isn’t far off the mark for this area of London. To condemn it because of that is ridiculous. There are a lot of drugs, gangs, and all the associated troubles they bring around the Elephant & Castle (where Sir Michael Caine grew up). You only have to listen to the constant wailing of sirens and the seemingly eternal presence of the police chopper above us every Friday and Saturday night. The scary bit for me is how true to life some of it actually is…..

  7. Your review stinks. I think you should open up your eyes and realize that, not only an audience, but just about anyone would get behind harry Brown simply because no one does anything when drugs and violence surrounds their living environment. A man like Harry Brown isn’t afraid of a thing, not even dying, simply because he’s already been through life as we have never experienced it when he was a young lad. I don’t know what your expectations for this movie was, but apparently, you went into the movie with something else in mind. Maybe you expected “Sir Michael Caine” to wow you with a performance he gave in The Cider House Rules, but then I question, did you like that movie or bash it as well?

  8. Thanks for you comments Julie. I don’t think my review stinks. I think I’ve just argued a position on this film that differs to yours. It’s been ages since I’ve seen The Cider House Rules but I found it to be fairly bland melodrama from memory. Until now it’s not been a film I’ve had much reason to give much thought to, especially not in reference to Harry Brown! I’ve said as much in my review but I’ll say it again – Michael Caine is a sensational actor. Even in films of his that I dislike (such as this one) I still love watching him. His performance is not my complaint with this film.

    In response to Smithereens and Rob, who both raise some really valid points, I know that there are some truly miserable parts of England that contain the types of repugnant people that are represented in the film. I’ll even concede that some of the characters in Harry Brown are accurate representations of these people. In fact, I was initially enjoying the film because it did seem to finally be exposing how horrible conditions in some of those estates have become. I certainly understand the anger and frustration that fuels a film like this.

    What lost me was the lack of complexity in how it presented the situation. Again, I’ll mention Gran Torino as a comparison since it was far more considered, thoughtful and for me convincing in how it examined a community that was increasingly at the mercy of youth gangs. The laughably grotesque gun-dealer character in Harry Brown is what finally lost me as it took the film into the realm of absurdity.

    However, most of all, Harry Brown advocates an individual murdering people to solve a socioeconomic problem (albeit a very extreme problem). The final shot showing us that Harry has found peace and happiness through his actions confirms that the film has endorsed what he has done. I know there is a vicarious thrill in vigilante films where the scum get wiped out by the hero but Harry Brown‘s attempt at gritty realism and unquestioning moral endorsement suggests that this is a legitimate solution rather than a cinematic fantasy. That’s what I really disliked about this film.

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