THERE ARE, for the liberal viewer, few guilty pleasures quite so delicious as those provided by the politically questionable revenge thriller. It’s not that films such as Dead Man’s Shoes or Last House on the Left stimulate the brain in spite of their dubious morality. That queasy feeling is, rather, a vital constituent of the buzz.
All of which is a way of introducing – or excusing – this superb British shocker from a promising young director. The film’s final shots confirm that, though a little violent for Daily Mail readers, it supports the newspaper’s thesis that Britain is going to the dogs and only a bit of rough justice can reverse the trend. So what. Harry Brown is the best western yet to be made in east London.
Michael Caine, granted his finest role for a decade, plays a former Royal Marine currently living humbly among the drug-crazed hooligans who terrorise his dilapidated estate. When his oldest pal (David Bradley) is killed by hoodies in a largely motiveless attack, Harry, who has also just lost his wife, is propelled into an almost involuntary campaign of revenge. He brings trouble to a sinister drug dealer (Sean Harris) and causes a decent copper (Emily Mortimer) to furrow her brow in disbelief.
For his debut feature, director Daniel Barber, recipient of an Oscar nomination for his short The Tonto Woman, turns London into a smoky, sub-Dickensian Hades. Assisted by Martin Ruhe, who also shot Control, he throws brown, greasy light across the public houses and makes echoing ominous fissures of the locale’s dangerous underpasses.
Sometimes Ruhe, perhaps, pushes things too far. Harris’s vast drugs den looks like something from the upcoming fifth Alien film, but the scene is so brilliantly tense you scarcely notice the absurdities.
What really makes the film surge is, you’ll be happy to hear, an angry, buttoned-up, nuanced performance from the great man himself. Many will note echoes of Gran Torino, but, abjuring that film’s ultimate message of tolerance, Harry Brown is much closer in tone to Caine’s 1971 classic Get Carter. Both pictures grab you early on, throttle you relentlessly and then leave you feeling both energised and slightly disgusted with yourself. Vital stuff.
Prepare to be Cained: the great man as Jack Car...,er, Harry Brown