Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Iain Glen, Jack O'Connell, Liam Cunningham, Amy Steel
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Were it not for Michael Caine's mesmerizing performance, Harry Brown would likely be just another run-of-the-mill revenge flick with a few decent action flicks, a willingness to exploit its characters and an abundance of gimmicky camera work passing as filmmaking by first-time director Daniel Barber.
Fortunately for the audience and Barber, Michael Caine is cast in the film as Harry, an elder gent and widow living alone in an increasingly dilapidated apartment building in southeast London with fond memories of the way the neighborhood used to be and a desire, essentially, to simply be left alone and to leave the memories of the man he used to be behind.
When his best friend Leonard (David Bradley) is murdered, Harry can't quite just let it alone and let the police do their work. Dismayed by the involvement of investigating detective Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) in a crime that he believes could have been prevented by earlier police involvement, Harry begins traveling down a path of vengeance that threatens the life he's been living as the body count begins to pile up.
No, not really.
Not even close.
The Brave One?
What separates Harry Brown from being just another revenge flick is the development of Harry's turmoil over his actions, brought hypnotically to life by Caine's simultaneously understated and volcanic performance as a man driven by impulses both understood and undiscovered.
Harry genuinely, it seems, would rather be headed down a different path than the one he's on and the film offers no glorification or excuses for his actions. Caine's ability to perfectly blend a sense of menace with the vulnerability of his aging body turns Harry into an unforgettable character study of a conflicted man.
Caine, despite having two Oscar nominations to his credit, has always been a bit of an underrated actor. Of course, Caine likely has himself to blame for the mixed reviews that have dominated his career considering for every The Cider House Rules he serves up he also bounces back with a Jaws IV paycheck film.
Harry Brown isn't likely to lead to another Oscar nomination, though it is arguably one of Caine's better performances in an otherwise remarkably average flick. Caine fans will undoubtedly want to catch this flick, while fans of quality indie cinema will mostly regard the film as a seriously missed opportunity with an outstanding performance holding it all together.
Not to be forgotten, Emily Mortimer is intense and captivating as the police detective investigating Leonard's murder and increasingly drawn into Harry's antics. What could have easily been a throwaway role is, instead, completely involving as a parallel to Harry.
Whereas this week's opening The A-Team squarely chooses style over substance, Harry Brown clearly abandons unnecessary style in favor of substantial character development and story, albeit a rather primitive story. While director Daniel Barber and D.P. Martin Ruhe too often rely on gimmicky camera work, they do so without the unnecessary CGI and special effects. Instead, Harry Brown is a very human drama with a rich, deeply felt performance from Michael Caine anchoring the film towards a much more rewarding sensory experience than one might expect.
While Harry Brown is set in England and, indeed, one gets the sense that Brits may very well identify more strongly with the film, Caine serves up a universal performance likely to resonate with anyone who has come face to face with aging, their past, urban dwelling and the remnants of a life that used to be but is no more. Somehow, Harry Brown is both distinctly British in style and personality while also feeling uncomfortable intimate across the ocean.
Writer Gary Young gives equal time to the bad guys in Harry Brown, painting them not as thug caricatures but as truly, unfathomably despicable human beings whose presence you will feel and whose actions you will unquestionably hate unless you find yourself along a similar life journey. This is a wise choice, really, infusing depraved humanity into the usual caricatures of villainy and giving Harry a worthy and understandable adversary.
Some of you, without question, will despise Harry Brown and find it unnecessarily violent and excessive in its depravity. Indeed, perhaps you are correct. Yet, this feels like an intentional decision by Barber and Young, a willingness to show life as it really becomes in communities that decay and in the lives that are disrupted by the decay.
This should be uncomfortable viewing. And so it is.
Harry Brown never comes close to achieving the greatness for which it is obviously aiming, but the film serves up one of Michael Caine's most complex and richly realized performances in years amidst its urban decay and revenge fantasies. While the film itself is abundantly flawed, Caine's performance is practically flawless.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic