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What Familiarity Breeds

A poignant meditation on aging turns into a rote vigilante narrative in Harry Brown.




Like most people, I'd prefer to die in a familiar place, surrounded by familiar faces as the lights dim. And it's much the same when the lights go down in the movie theater: no matter how many reviews I write using the word familiar as a pejorative, I appreciate the comforts of genre and like seeing old faces onscreen. One of the oldest these days is Michael Caine: now 77, the British actor made his first screen appearance in 1956 and has been known to U.S. audiences since the mid-60s, when he played superspy Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File and two sequels. Daniel Barber makes a joking reference to the role in his new thriller when the opening credits announce, in classic action-movie parlance, "Michael Caine . . . is . . . Harry Brown." 

But Harry Brown is no superspy: he's a pensioner living in a hellish London council estate ravaged by drugs and crime, the sort of place where old people creep along the margins, praying that no one will notice them. After his wife dies and his best friend is murdered by drug-dealing punks, Harry turns vigilante, rediscovering the violence of his early years as a British soldier in Northern Ireland. Caine is magnificent in the role, but Harry Brown pulled me in two different directions: though the early scenes poignantly capture an elderly person's pain as loved ones disappear, the revenge story is a little too pat, hitting all the requisite notes about the broken justice system in its buildup to the cathartic bloodletting. Like most vigilante dramas, Harry Brown is comforting but might make you question your need for comfort.

The movie opens with a frightening and chaotic point-of-view sequence that immediately bullies us into the mind-set of a defenseless old person. Grainy cell-phone video shot in a subterranean tunnel shows gang members initiating a new member by forcing a crack pipe on him; then a startling jump cut places us on a roaring motorbike as two punks race around the council estate, terrorizing pedestrians. A mother with a stroller screams as they circle her, firing off warning shots from a pistol, until her head explodes in a spray of blood. "A random and senseless act of violence" is how a newsreader characterizes the crime when Harry is introduced, waking to his clock radio. He eats alone, washes the dishes in silence, hears a scream outside but doesn't go to the window. Walking to the hospital to visit his comatose wife, he pauses at the pedestrian walkway that provides a shortcut beneath the highway, but he hears music inside and takes the long way instead.

Harry turns to violence only when he's got nothing left to lose, and watching him get to that point is a wrenching experience. In the hospital, he speaks to his unconscious wife and tenderly strokes her face, but later, playing chess in the local pub with his old friend Leonard (David Bradley), he confides that she no longer seems to know he's there. A telephone call in the middle of the night summons him back to the hospital, and in the pouring rain he's scared away from the shortcut again. When he arrives belatedly to find his wife's bed already stripped down to the mattress, he bursts into tears. In the cemetery, a headstone beside his wife's reveals that the couple had a daughter who died in her teens. But Harry's loss cuts deepest in a later scene where he returns home after having impulsively killed a mugger; lying in bed, he passes a hand over his wife's pillow, but there's no one to share his turmoil. 

His loss is compounded when Leonard dies too. Terrorized by kids in the building and brushed off by the police, Leonard shows Harry an army dagger he intends to use the next time the kids give him trouble. Soon afterward, a police inspector (Emily Mortimer) arrives at Harry's door to notify him that Leonard has been murdered in the pedestrian walkway. In the movie's most pointed shot, Barber tracks a hearse as it passes through the graveyard, a flower arrangement reading GRANDDAD visible through its side window, a procession of cars following after it—but then the camera halts, and the cars pass to reveal Leonard's burial, attended only by Harry and the minister. When the inspector shows up at his flat again, she finds Harry occupying himself with a chess board set up to re-create a famous Fischer-Spassky match. "You don't have anyone to play with," she observes. "No," Harry admits quietly. "Not since Len."

No one could begrudge Harry the comfort of a familiar face, but there comes a point when the desire for familiarity becomes reactionary—it's what drives every tea-party protester whining that he wants his country back. Clint Eastwood played with this idea in his recent hit Gran Torino, another story of an angry geezer taking the law into his own hands; his old fart, Walt, is an unrepentant racist in a withering Detroit neighborhood who chafes at the Hmong family living next door to him until they're victimized by a local gang. Daniel Barber, a young man directing his first feature, is unwilling, or perhaps unable, to shade his Harry Brown as cagily as the septuagenarian Eastwood does Walt. Harry is just a nice old gent pushed past his limits by feral, irredeemable, and subhuman kids.

Harry Brown seems especially rote whenever the narrative leaves Caine behind to follow Mortimer's police inspector, Alice Frampton, as she investigates Leonard's murder. Frampton is a familiar figure, and not in a good way: buttoned-down, rigorously procedural, she could have her pick of any job in the police department but sticks to the street, where she thinks she can make a difference. Of course, she can't: her commander is a political hack, and the young men she questions in the case at hand are monsters, hurling crude language at her and pugnaciously dismissing her questions. Shown a ghastly photo of Leonard's bloodied face, one of them gleefully cracks, "Fuckin' Freddy Krueger, innit?" In the movie's dramatic scheme, Frampton is supposed to serve as Harry's conscience, but she's a straw man.

The movie's reactionary sentiment is particularly evident in the way Barber views electronic gadgets: from the very first sequence, video technology is emblematic of barbarity. In one dismal and unnerving scene, Harry edges his way into the lair of a repellent drug dealer (Sean Harris, the venal Detective Craven in the Red Riding trilogy) to buy a black-market gun. Playing in the background, on a big flat-screen TV, is a home video of the dealer himself viciously humping a drugged-out woman. Later Harry captures one of the punks from his council estate, ties him to a chair, and tortures him until he gives up his cell phone, which contains a grainy snuff video of Len being stabbed to death in the walkway. Harry later proffers the video as proof that the kids are "animals," as if he were any less one for tying someone to a chair and torturing him.

Sitting in the theater, you're liable to buy all this simply for the pleasure of watching Caine work. Like Eastwood and other actors of his vintage, Caine brings to the project not only his own formidable skills but more than half a century of movie history. Despite the rather routine social politics of Harry Brown, the movie ends with a haunting and ambiguous image of Harry strolling down the asphalt to the darkened mouth of the pedestrian walkway. Thanks partly to him, it's now a safe passage for the people of the council estate. But as he nears the darkness, it also unmistakably suggests an open grave.   

Related Film

Harry Brown

Official Site:

Director: Daniel Barber

Producer: Keith Bell, Matthew Brown, Reno Antoniades and Paul Brett

Cast: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Liam Cunningham, Iain Glen, Jack O'Connell, Charlie Creed-Miles, Ben Drew, David Bradley, Raza Jaffrey, Joseph Gilgun, Sean Harris, Amy Steel, Klariza Clayton and Forbes KB

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