The first time I watched Harry Brown I went in blind. All I’d heard was Michael Cain played an OAP vigilante, going up against the annoying rapper Plan B as he tries his hand at acting. With knowledge like this it was a 50/50 chance of being awesome (courtesy of Cain) or painful (courtesy of Plan B). Thankfully I was pleasantly surprised at how well made, yet hard hitting, this film is.
I will not lie, this film was uncomfortable to watch once, let alone twice. I took a bit of time and asked some people what they thought, the general consensus being it’s a well made film, just unpleasant to watch. It’s a good film to watch but not enjoyable to watch. There’s a level of discomfort to it but, without it, the film would be nowhere near as effective as it is. Everything that happens is shocking, is done to shock, but is also done to enable the film to be what it is.
The story is effectively simple, the titular Harry Brown (Cain) takes the law into his own hands after his friend Len (David Bradley) dies trying to protect himself against a local gang led by Noel (Ben “Plan B” Drew). As he goes on his mission he arouses suspicion from police officer’s Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and Terry Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles).
While the story is simple there are a lot of characters. While each of them aren’t given a deep back story or a lot of focus, they’re each played excellently enough to not need it. For example, Len is barely seen alive, he has a few scenes and no extensive back story. However, you get everything you need to know from the dialogue and Bradley’s acting. He’s a scared man who thinks he can still take care of things, despite his age.
The film doesn’t waste time on needless exposition and character plots. Instead, there are hints about other characters laced throughout the dialogue that foreshadow various events. For example, during Marky’s (Jack O’Connell from Skins) interrogation, Frampton points out that he’s made allegations of his foster parents sexually abusing him. This leads into a later scene were a drug dealer is abusing him in a parked car, just before Harry shoots the dealer in the head and kidnaps Marky.
There is a lot of themes going on in the film, but not so many as to overload the audience. The writers clearly have their opinions on gang culture but never condemn it outright. They take the time to explore all the angles of it, looking at it from Browns point of view, the police’s but also from some of the gang members. In the case of the gang members this is handled literally in the opening sequence which is shot from an unknown gang members point of view.
One thing I did notice is that the gang members weren’t underplayed or dumbed down. The film doesn’t take it upon itself to condemn them as kids trying to be adult which other films sometimes do. There’s hints during Noel’s interrogation that Hicock does think he’s still a child but all the characters seem to recognise that they are a real threat. The only exception being Len who is killed by them. I like that the film doesn’t write the gang members off as being misunderstood, it helps create a more tense atmosphere by not rationalising their actions. There are attempts to explain the origins of their behaviour such as sexual abuse, drug addiction and family influences, but none of these are used as excuses for them.
There are a number of brilliantly handled scenes which are uncomfortable, yet ingeniously executed. Director Daniel Barber knows what response he wants from his audience and exactly how to get it. He’s not afraid to go that step further to make the audience uncomfortable with what they’re watching. He doesn’t start off slow either, the opening sequence is from the point of view of an unnamed gang member as they shoot a woman in the head in front of her baby before being knocked down and killed by a lorry driver. Another such scene involves Caine’s character visiting a drug dealer called Stretch at a cannabis farm who is sexually abusing a girl while she is overdosing to make pornography. It’s disturbing to watch and really uncomfortable, especially since the pacing and location all add an immense amount of tension. On a side note, Sean Harris is utterly terrifying in this scene as Stretch, he is very intimidating and sinister and truly one of the most disturbing characters in the film.
Yet not all scenes are uncomfortable to watch. Scenes such as when Harry passes by the underpass are so full of emotion and frustration it’s hard not to feel sorry for him or share his frustration. The early sequences with Harry getting ready or alone in his flat are excellently handled. He’s shown to be alone and sad, ignoring the world outside and the problems on the estate. It’s these scenes that offer enough insight into him to explain why he becomes a vigilante. One such scene literally shows him ignoring the gangs on the estates. One night a car is attacked an a man comes out to confront the gang before being beaten up by them and left in the street. Harry watches this through his curtains but when a woman begins to yell for help he closes the curtains and goes to bed. It’s scenes like this that offer an insight into Harry and his life and how his wife’s death was a catalyst in his transformation to vigilante. In fact, I’d almost argue that his wife’s death is more important than Len’s death as it allowed him to ‘open the box’ that contained his history as a Marine. While in the pub Len asks if Harry had ever killed anyone, to which Harry replies that when he met his wife he had to lock that part of him away in a box. Later, after accidentally killing Dean by the canal, Harry is seen holding a black box that contains items from when he was a Marine.
All in all Harry Brown is a complex film with a lot of levels to it. A hard film to watch, disturbing at times but moving at others.