Cast your mind back to the mid to late 2000’s. The moral panic du jour in Britain was “hoodies”, the fear that the fabric of society would be destroyed by gangs of feral hooded youth. Talk of “broken Britain” fuelled asbos, countless column inches of tabloid journalism and of course spilled into British films. We had the “hoodie horror” subgenre of films like Eden Lake and F, as well as Nick Love’s Outlaw which mined similar fears.
Firmly in this mode is Daniel Barber’s 2009 debut Harry Brown. Michael Caine plays the titular main character. Harry is an ex-serviceman who is living on a cartoonishly hellish council estate. His wife is in a care home. Barber sets up the sad mundanity of Harry’s routine well. Harry’s wife dies and his only friend Len Attwell (character actor David Bradley, who is best known as Filch in the Harry Potter films, or Walder Frey in Game of Thrones) is killed by the gang who are terrorising the estate. The gang is led by Noel Winters (an excellent Ben Drew, better known as the rapper Plan B). Harry sets out to get revenge on the gang. Emily Mortimer is the idealistic cop who suspects there may be more going on than meets the eye.
First off, the film’s worldview is absolutely morally objectionable. It’s the kind of thing you can imagine, had it been made decades prior, could have been a late stage Michael Winner (Death Wish) joint. In the world of Harry Brown the socioeconomic factors that result in crime on council estates is either ignored, or shrugged off. According to this film criminals are just wrong ‘uns, and if they were murdered extra-judicially the estate would become an idyllic place. The only parent we see is a checked out “chav” stereotype. It’s not just reprehensible, its histrionic tone becomes laughable. In the world of the film you cannot put your foot out the door of your council flat at night, lest you are beaten ,seemingly to death. The estate is such a grimy vision of hell you are reminded of the quote from Brass Eye – “like Dante meets Bosch in a crack lounge”!
If you choose to overlook this since ,after all, this is a hallmark of the vigilante exploitation film subgenre , then the film is a decent thriller.
Commercials veteran Barber’s direction is confident and gives the film an air of prestige that is actually unmerited. The uniformly grim cinematography and oppressive sound design are effective. The opening sequences which are shot through a (now dated) mobile phone are fantastic. There are some brilliantly tense moments. The CGI gore, however has aged like milk.
Probably the saving grace of the film, however, is the acting, which is uniformly strong across the board. Caine gives one of the best performances of his later career as Brown. He imbues the early scenes with a quiet dignity and sadness, but his stand-out scene may be the “you have failed to maintain your weapon” monologue he delivers.
The film is definitely in the “geriaction” subgenre of aging heroes (the one that consumed Liam Neeson’s career for a hot minute). Wisely, however, the film acknowledges the inherent problems with an OAP being a vigilante, leaning in to the fragility of its hero.
The stacked supporting cast includes then-rising star Jack O’Connell, Irish actor Liam Cunningham and Shane Meadows regular Joe Gilgun. The standout, however, is a career best one scene performance from Sean Harris (Prometheus, Mission Impossible: Fallout). In a tense scene Harry visits Harris’ heroin addicted gangster/pimp “Stretch”’s squalid grow house/squat in order to procure guns. Harris brings a gaunt physicality to the part, the shirtless character covered in stretch marks, and realistically faded homemade tattoos. Harris is genuinely terrifying and the film is worth watching for moments like this.
Ultimately this film is a vigilante fantasy for Daily Mail readers. It allows them to indulge their dream, where they blow away the kids who listen to music on their phones outside the local shops.
Harry Brown is currently streaming on Disney Plus.