Harry Brown

Starring Michael Caine, David Bradley, Sean Harris, Emily Mortimer and Charles Creed-Mills. Directed by Daniel Barber
Rated MA 15+ (strong violence, drug use, sexual references and coarse language). 103 mins.

Since Michael Winner directed Charles Bronson in the 1974 Death Wish and it became the archetypal movie for a reference to urban vigilante films (and led to several sequels and imitations and derivatives), it is very difficult to review this kind of film.  On the one hand, one must deplore an individual taking the law into his or her own hands and executing in the streets those who have committed crimes that have eluded official justice.  We are not executioners.  On the other hand, the atrocities committed by thugs who have no compunction on ordinary citizens do, as the scriptures say, call out for vengeance.  Audiences can identify emotionally with the pain, frustration and, sometimes, the inefficiency of police and courts in achieving just penalties.

Of course, any film, Death Wish or Harry Brown, is not intended as a final answer one way or the other.  Audiences will bring their values to watching the film and assess the situations and the characters' actions accordingly.  A vigilante mentality will cheer.  A non-vigilante mentality will empathise with the suffering and the experience of thug victimisation and try to think further on what needs to be done in society to break cycles of unemployment, drug dealing and consumption and develop the proper means of justice.  This is what a story can do well:  offer us experiences that challenge our presuppositions and make us question the society in which we live.

This is a review by someone based in London for some years.  The film's picture of the estates, the dangerous underpasses, the young people hanging about, the propensity for mindless violence are part of the headlines and the radio and TV news.  Interestingly, Harry Brown avoids the race and ethnic issues which seem to dominate the headlines.  The gangs here are all white men and women.

Again, the media is frequently alarming as stories of innocent elderly people being assaulted, robbed and even killed in their own homes.  The week of Harry Brown's UK release saw the story of three young men putting fireworks through a letter box which led to the burning down of the house and the death of a mother and daughter.

Harry Brown spends quite some time establishing its elderly characters, Michael Caine very effective as Harry whose wife dies after a long illness, and David Bradley as Len, his friend and chess partner at the local pub who is harrassed by the thugs and is not going to take it any more.  Harry was a marine in Ulster but has left that in the past.  However, his disgust at the behaviour of the unrepentant men and the drug-dealing scum of London sends him back to his weapons and his going on a confrontation and killing spree.  The sequence where he meets with the scarred and disfigured dealers in their squalid house (with Sean Harris – memorable as Thomas in the Jeremy Sisto Jesus – giving a powerfully seedy performance) is frighteningly tense.

The police are represented by Emily Mortimer and Charles Creed-Mills.  They are limited by their abilities and what they can actually do in the face of lawyers' advice to criminals, lack of evidence and police work on more important issues than the deaths of old age pensioners.  Iain Glenn is the rather smug police chief.

It was Peter Finch's character in Network who got people to yell out from their homes, I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more.  That's what happens in vigilante films like Harry Brown.

Icon Films Out May 20

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


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