Harry Brown (UK, 103 min)
Dir: Daniel Barber; Writ: Gary Young
“In the old days, we confiscated cigarettes and wank mags. Now it's knives and crack cocaine. And they call it progress,” says Barbara Covett, the old battle-axe schoolteacher played by Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal. The times have changed in Britain, apparently. The proper English gentleman is fading away and is slowly being replaced by violent expletive-spewing hoodlums.
This is seen first hand in Harry Brown. The film opens with a handheld video sequence in which a group of thugs torment a woman in a park: she’s innocently walking her baby and they viciously taunt her with a gun. It’s all fun and games for them as they fire aimlessly and watch her dodge bullets, except that one makes contact, thus making the poor mother a victim of a random and senseless act of violence.
Cut to Harry Brown. Played by Michael Caine, Harry is a proper man of the old school. Even though he’s a retired, he gets up at 6:30 every morning, makes himself tea and toast, and quickly washes the dishes and sweeps away the crumbs before heading out. Too bad for Harry though, because he lives in a graffiti-laden, rough and tough part of town. His neighborhood has become so dangerous that he cannot even use the pedestrian underpass and must take the long way around when walking to the hospital to visit his dying wife.
The next day, Harry receives a visit from Detective Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer), who tells him that Len was murdered during the night by a group of thugs. Harry is distraught by the loss of his last friend, and his grief is further compounded later on in the investigation when Det. Frampton informs him that the kids may get off on a murder charge because Len himself was armed. This news, coupled with a violent encounter Harry has on his way home from the pub one evening, incites Harry to finish the job Len began.
Harry Brown is a lot more than a blood-soaked revenge thriller. Like Harry, the film itself is quite mature: it offers a wry commentary on the changing times. The violent portrayal of Britain’s disillusioned youth makes an astute companion piece to this year’s Fish Tank. Both films examine the disconnect created when the most vulnerable members of society are failed by the system. Harry Brown is a potent look at one man’s last attempt to repair the social order before his time is up. This British crime-thriller is what 2008’s Gran Torino should have been.