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The concept of vigilantism is commonly associated with the homemade superhero craze. It's easy to forget that an individual with a vengeance doesn't have to have a cheesy name or be plain old deranged, but Harry Brown is as sane and simple as they come. Further pushing him into the world of the raw and deeply passionate is that he’s played by Michael Caine. This guy is the quintessential grandpa. He's Batman's Alfred for Christ's sake! But not here. Here he's the most unsuspecting force to be reckoned with.
Harry Brown (Caine) has hit a dark point in his life and that's saying a lot considering he’s an ex-marine. When his wife passes away, he's left alone in their apartment in a dangerous housing estate. He hears screams at night, views assaults from his window and doesn't dare enter the pedestrian walkway just outside his building. The spot is prime delinquent territory. The worst of the worst hang out there and won't hesitate at the chance to jump a victim, take his or her belongings and beat the living crap out of them.
Harry is just a spectator as are most of the residents, but when his good pal Leonard (David Bradley) is pushed to the max and the cops are of no assistance, he ditches the sideline to get a piece of the action. Sure enough, he's yet another victim under the walkway. Now it's Harry's turn to deal with the situation and he goes about it in a far more proficient manner. Eager to blame everything on the estates' reckless teens, the cops are oblivious to Harry's efforts. Well, all except one, D.I. Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer). Having been assigned to Leonard’s case, she's acquainted with Harry and despite the unlikeliness of his being a 'vigilant pensioner,' she keeps a keen eye on him.
Caine really is the best of the best. He pours every ounce of himself into Harry, and the payoff is massive. He doesn't even need to utter a word to release heaps of emotion. Your heart breaks for his plight at the onset. He's clearly a troubled man having suffered a family tragedy as well as the pain of keeping his war stories bottled up inside for decades. But even with these obvious woes, nothing is blazingly overwhelming. You can see the wheel's turning in Harry's head, but are always in tune with his peaceful nature. However, he’s still incontestably volatile creating an intense amount of tension.
Making Harry Brown even more suspenseful, is the way it catches you completely off guard. Writer Gary Young takes his sweet time getting to the gritty stuff. By the point a gun is pulled or a drop of blood drawn, you're extremely at ease having only been given a taste of Harry's sadness in mundane day-to-day events. Just as Young achieves the proper amount of character development, he lets loose and unleashes Harry's incredibly violent side. What keeps Harry in the vigilante category rather than spinning out of control and becoming criminally insane, is his professionalism. He goes about his business in a rational manner.
Even Mortimer manages to make quite an impact in a far less moving role. Unlike Harry, Frampton is a little undercooked. There's an attempt to introduce some of her personal matters, but the detail is so minimal, it never gains much value. On the other hand, when fully engulfed in the main story, she comes out swinging and ultimately hits hard. Caine is able to carry the film most of the way, but in its final quarter, Mortimer takes a significant amount of the credit for keeping the suspense level high.
There's nothing more fulfilling than seeing a compelling story brought to life by standout performances and then further enhanced by stellar directing. Director Daniel Barber knows the script and his resources well, and it shows. With the help of cinematographer Martin Ruhe, he assembles the perfect assortment of shots. He's apt to include the necessary establishing shots, provides the audience with a 360-degree view of the action and includes just enough close-ups to give the moment some depth with impeccable detail. Making the cinematography even more encapsulating, Ruhe always manages to capture the most visually appealing and interesting angles, particularly when shooting in close quarters.
Harry Brown is a lot to digest stylistically and narratively. What begins as a somber stroll in the park turns into a mad dash for survival. The transformation is rigid but appropriately so. Much of Harry Brown is developed in an ever-increasing, shock-inducing manner and this is undeniably successful. Harry's situation feels real and that's what makes Harry Brown’s story so potent.