Harry Brown, 2009.
Directed by Daniel Barber.
Starring Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Ben Drew, Charlie Creed-Miles, David Bradley, Jack O’Connell and Liam Cunningham.
After the natural death of his wife, and the not-so-natural death of his best friend, Harry Brown wages war on the local gangs that terrorise his streets.
The opening credits are very small. The filmmakers don’t seem to have a television audience in mind. They shouldn’t. It shows they’re serious.
And they are. There’s an opening prologue to Harry Brown. It’s shot on what seems to be a mobile phone with a very shaky, pixelated quality. It deliberately echoes the ‘happy slapping’ phase on YouTube, where idiots would upload videos of themselves randomly beating up unsuspecting members of the public. This opening, uninterrupted shot contains the same content.
The perspective is from one of two kids filming a ‘happy slap’ on their phone. They both circle a mother with a pram, who’s walking across one of those sterile patches of green amongst the council estates. One of them is firing a gun. The shots seem to be blanks, just to scare the mother, but then her head is burst open by an accidental bullet. It’s far from graphic. The picture is too distorted by the camera’s quality. The viewpoint is fast whipped away in fright, and the two dumb kids ride for escape.
You assume Harry Brown (Michael Caine) lives on that council estate. They all look the same, anyway. They’re non-places; interchangeable and possessing no defining features to identify one from the other, like airports.
Brown’s wife is no longer with him, so the old widower passes the time playing chess with Leonard (David Bradley) in their local pub. Leonard’s distressed. Those youths heckle and harass him whenever he’s outside his flat. Even when at home, they’ll set fire to dog shit on his doorstep. He can’t take much more.
“You ever kill anyone?” he asks Harry, half out of curiosity, half out of hope, in a hushed voice across the chessboard. “You can’t ask me that, Len,” replies Harry. Or was it Michael Caine.
There’s an old notion in Film Studies called ‘Star Theory’. It proposes that certain actors transcend a single character or film and become ‘stars’. It’s often when actors become famous for playing similar characters throughout their career. Henry Fonda, for instance, played the good guy in so many Westerns that all you had to do was see a shot of those steely, blue eyes and you’d remember him as the characters from other films. With no exposition, you’d know Henry Fonda was the good guy, what he stood for. He would bring with him a specific baggage that, although not mentioned onscreen, would lurk in the audience’s perceptions.
So, when Leonard asks, “you ever kill anyone?” all those East-End gangster films in which Michael Caine has starred weigh down the response. Of course he’s killed people, we think to ourselves of Harry. But really we think of Harry Palmer, Charlie Croker and Jack Carter.
In the film’s context, however, Harry’s ‘experience’ comes from being a Royal Marine over in Northern Ireland. His reluctance to answer Leonard’s question supplies its own answer. Those two lines convey so much – about the characters, what has happened in the past, and what they will do in the near future. Leonard wants to kill someone. He has a fair stab at it, but ends up perishing.
This is Harry’s instigating incident. The crime and violence on his streets – ones that he helped protect, in a way, as an ex-Marine, and ones that he instilled with respect as Michael Caine – has now claimed his best friend. With no wife and no daughter for whom to care, he starts a crusade against the thugs that taint the estate’s tarmac sands.
Killing criminals appears therapeutic for Harry. In an interrogation scene, he talks with his captive about the horrors in his army days, like some S&M psychiatry session. At other times, he’s presented as an Angel of Vengeance. He saves an overdosing prostitute from a drug dealer, taking her to a hospital with the needle still sticking out from her limp arm. He gives the drug dealer’s money to a church collection.
There’s also a sub-plot with the police. Detective Frampton (Emily Mortimer) was the officer who told Harry of Leonard’s death. She has a personal obsession with arresting Noel Winters (Plan B, ne Ben Drew), the leader of the local gang, as does Harry. Their paths entwine seamlessly, crescendoing in a dark, fiery riot on the estate’s streets, which is accompanied by soaring violins – not fast cutting and techno as is usually the norm. The visuals are pretty apt for a film made two years before this past summer’s events.
The pace is restrained throughout, and is reminiscent of the gritty British cinema from the 80s. The way in which it is shot, slightly grainy and dark, smacks of that era too. Aesthetics of the 70s creep in amongst the already retro style. Characters are often filmed from far away, like the telescopic zoom shots in an old 70s thriller. They look lost in the urban sprawl that they inhabit.
Harry Brown, in a decade or so, will be viewed as a classic British Gangster film. This is no exaggeration. It fully deserves to be uttered in the same raspy, Cockney accent as Get Carter and The Long Good Friday.