Harry Brown Review (a TIFF Preview)

Harry Brown (2009)
Directed by Daniel Barber
Screenplay by Gary Young
Starring Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Iain Glen, Liam Cunningham, David Bradley
World Premiere at TIFF in a Special Presentation

About 15 minutes into Harry Brown, you'll think you know pretty much exactly what's going to go down. Caine, inhabiting the role as only he can, stars as Brown, a weary pensioner living in a dreary "estate" apartment somewhere in a grimy corner of urban U.K., whose days consist of hopeless visits with his failing wife at her hospital bedside and afternoons at the pub playing chess over a pint with his friend, Leonard (David Bradley). He goes the long way around when the thugs who have more or less taken over the estate threaten from an underpass, and shuts the curtains when they mob and assault a man while stealing his car underneath his window. He listens in horror as his buddy talks about living in fear of their harassment and threatens revenge. It's been mentioned in casual conversation that Brown is an ex-Marine, so when his wife passes away and Leonard dies in a skirmish with the criminal element, you'll be thinking oh yeah, now it's payback time. But this is no cartoonish Steven Seagal outing, and the film's genius lies precisely in taking those familiar elements and truly surprising you with their outcome.

How does one believably get from feeble senior citizen to efficient instrument of deadly revenge? To start with, by casting Caine in the role. One of the real treasures of the cinematic world, he goes from glassy eyed confusion to steely ex-military with consummate acting chops, and he's helped by a strong cast, from the actors who play the brutish thugs who've taken over the block to Emily Mortimer's police detective inspector, cast as the lone voice of reason and whose character naturally pays dearly for that quality. The foundation is a great script, one that takes a fresh approach to the well worn genre. It unfolds in a chain of events that seems entirely believable - never false or contrived. The police investigation into first Leonard's murder and then the growing body count gets caught up in obtuse police politicking that accelerates the violence, bringing it to a conclusion you won't anticipate.

Cinematography is the third element working towards the film's strong impact, shot in an intimate style that veers as close as the pores on Caine's face, and sometimes in jittery, hand held sequences like the opening scene, where we join the neighbourhood thugs on a drug-fueled spree of violence with a breathless view from the backseat (see clip above). It's a taut, expertly crafted drama/thriller that delivers on every count.

Check out the screening times here.