d. Daniel Barber / UK / 2009 / 103 mins
Viewed at: Screen 5 @ Odeon (Norwich, UK)
I’ve never been one to decry the lack of morals in the cinema and I’m not about to start. Also, I like to think I’m pretty difficult to offend and I’m quite proud of the fact that I have never walked out on a film – not even Dreamgirls, although I’ll admit that I often enjoy actively despising such trollop. My toughest challenge of late has been Harry Brown – Daniel Barber’s ode to teen gangsterism and OAP revenge – which, in my book, had no morals, was wholly offensive and almost, almost, saw me walk out. Twice.
So what, exactly, is the trouble with this Harry? Well, it attempts to be ‘serious’ but lacks basic realism, for one. It’s a resolutely unglorious glorification of mock-gangster aesthetics and rabid eye-for-an-eye hysterics. Furthermore, it is stupid, mean-spirited and morally dubious, venturing perilously close to torture-porn territory. I suppose it could be read as a dystopian portrayal of modern Britain (as many have suggested), but Harry Brown is simply devoid of morality for me. It’s soulless filmmaking with, as far as I can tell, absolutely nothing useful to say about anything, let alone society.
Don’t get me wrong, the whole thing was crafted well enough and, technically speaking, it’s a fair indication of the rude health of independent feature production in the UK at the moment. And yet, as is often the case, something is not quite right. As tempting as it might be to describe Daniel Barber’s direction as ‘assured’, this belies the fact that, in striving as he does for such ‘grim realism’, Barber actually does himself (and the film) a disservice. Simply put, this kind of ‘gritty, urban realism’ is – if not accompanied by some kind of constructive social comment or moral fabric – deeply unsettling and highly repulsive. Then again, maybe I’m expecting too much from a Graphic Design graduate who has spent most of his working life in television image creation and advertising. The phrase ‘all frill and no knickers’ springs to mind.
In terms of on-screen performance, Michael Caine is capable enough in the title role, wheezing his way through the motions of playing an elderly tough guy hell-bent on revenge. Although, contrary to all the rave reviews, this was run of the mill Caine playing little more than a caricatured amalgam of his past tough-guy roles.
In fact, the only character in Harry Brown who seeks to see the bigger picture – or has any sense of morality whatsoever – is Emily Mortimer’s recently reassigned Detective Inspector Frampton. And yet this character is completely underdeveloped, her motivations are left unexplained and – more importantly – she is shown to be weak, and is marginalised from the outset. Most insultingly though, as the only female character of note, she is rendered ineffectual simply because she is a ‘woman in a man’s world’, her questioning of morals and ethics put down to some sort of inherent feminine weakness.
Director Daniel Barber has stated that Harry Brown treats the audience with ‘quite a degree of intelligence’. I, for one, would beg to differ. Is anyone out there – ‘liberal intellectual’ or otherwise – really interested in watching tit-for-tat teen gangsterism for the OAP set, which glorifies gobshite-ism with no real condemnation and presents a totally skewed vision of British ‘yoof’ from the perspective of a well-to-do advertising professional? No, me either. Don’t believe the hype! No stars!