DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: TIFF 2009: Harry Brown

Wednesday 16 September 2009

TIFF 2009: Harry Brown

Harry Brown (2009) Dir. Daniel Barber
Starring: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer and David Bradley


Guest Review by Greg Klymkiw

A new vigilante picture starring Sir Michael Caine as the title character, a senior citizen who cleans up the scum in his neighborhood whilst avenging the murder of an old pal should be music to the ears of most movie-goers. It certainly was to mine. But as this turgid, poorly paced, humourless, somewhat pretentious and far too precious picture un-spooled, all I kept thinking was: “Oh no, say it isn’t so!” As hard as I tried to like the picture, it was pretty much impossible to muster any enthusiasm.

The screenplay by Gary Young (“Shooters”) is serviceable enough. It opens with some brutal violence, lays the groundwork for Harry’s seemingly mild mannered character (an ex-Marine as it turns out, who served Britain in Ireland during the “troubles”), efficiently stacks the deck for the audience to enjoy watching our title hero take out all the filth and paints several vivid portraits of youth run amuck that are guaranteed to convert even the most liberal sensibilities to the noble cause of vigilantism (or send them running for the door in disgust at how lower class kids are portrayed as vicious irredeemable psychopaths who deserve only death).

The problem lies mostly with first-time feature director Daniel Barber, whose previous work includes television commercials (always a bad sign) and an Academy Award nominated short film (no real guarantee of talent). The clichéd bleach-bypass-ish lighting that contrasts with the deep, semi-noir-ish deep blacks is not without mood, but there’s no real imagination to the compositions – no urgency, no real edge. The cutting is even more by the numbers and lacks the same kind of drive and build-up that made a lot of the 70s crime pictures so intense.

The picture that comes immediately to mind is Mike Hodges’s stunning 1971 crime and retribution thriller “Get Carter” (which also starred Caine), but even the mere thought of that picture’s relentless nastiness serves to constantly remind us of how little oomph “Harry Brown” has.

“Get Carter” is a rollercoaster. “Harry Brown” is the kiddies’ car ride.

All that said, Sir Michael handles himself magnificently and his restrained, intelligent performance comes close to saving the movie. His depiction of seeming stoicism that is ultimately unable to hide the sadness in his eyes when he gazes upon a photograph of his long-dead daughter or his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife or his best friend who expresses fear and anger at being harassed by neighborhood thugs is powerful and moving. As the indignities are heaped upon Harry, we can see the anger dancing and flickering in his irises – a guarantee that much carnage will follow.

In spite of Caine’s performance, though, the movie is pretty much a slog. Barber metes everything out at a snail’s pace and appears to do so in order to give the movie the sort of weight he clearly hopes will raise it above a simple vigilante picture. It’s this precious, holier-than-thou attitude towards the material that destroys all potential for entertainment value. Clearly, the director wants us to question our reactions to the proceedings, but all we end up questioning is why in hell the movie is so boring? Why is their no nastiness to Caine’s actions? Where’s the relish the director should be taking in all the displays of carnage. And while I am thankful to Barber that he does not resort to the fashionable, but annoying and lazy herky-jerky style of shooting and cutting the action – he often hangs back and lets things play out naturally – it’s the overall pace of the picture and attitude of “I’m above exploitation” that affects the picture’s ability to involve us.

Great vigilante movies get under our skin by forcing us to cheer the actions of the person who seeks retribution so that maybe, just maybe, we WILL genuinely question our own reactions to the violence as it is being perpetrated. They do this by bringing a pulp sensibility to the material much like Hodges did in “Get Carter”.

The only straw of entertainment value to grasp at is Caine’s terrific performance, but it’s simply and finally not enough.

One especially annoying speed bump in the movie is the performance of Emily Mortimer as a homicide detective who is investigating the murder of Harry’s old pal and begins to suspect that our hero is the person committing a series of killings amongst the neighbourhood’s underworld. Not only is she miscast, but her dour demeanour is singularly unattractive and we long for one of the thugs to erase her completely from the proceedings.

“Harry Brown” commits a cardinal sin – it tries to gussy itself up as something it isn’t. This has produced a picture that MIGHT appeal to a politically correct minority who can pretend they’re NOT watching the movie for the carnage and would normally not be caught dead in a theatre showing a kick-ass vigilante picture, but all the rest of us – who like our action straight-up (morality be damned!) get supremely short-changed. That said, however, Sir Michael is great, and that, I suppose, is not to be sneezed at.

“Harry Brown” is playing at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and will be theatrically released by E1 Films.

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