Wednesday, 23 September 2009

TIFF Dispatch: Harry Brown

"You've failed to maintain your weapon."

Sadness pours off the screen in Harry Brown, the directorial debut of Daniel Barber. Sadness - and its frequent dance partner, Decay, permeates the early frames - and, no doubt, the lonely life of the titular character played by Michael Caine.

A long-retired marine and Falklands veteran, Harry now lives in a dreary council flat somewhere in suburban London (This is a long, long way from anywhere listed in any tourist guide). He spends his days playing quiet games of chess with his friend Leonard, paying quiet hospital visits to his ailing and unresponsive wife and shuffling quietly from room to room in his dreary little flat.

The location may be dreary, but Harry has his dignity - in the early scenes we see the care he takes in simple tasks like washing dishes and dressing for the day. The problem is that Harry's England no longer exists. It's been replaced by vicious teenage gangs who congregate - at all hours of the day, it seems - to make out, get high and as we learn, harass Leonard, with tragic results. That's when Harry gets mad - at the gangs and particularly at the police, who alternate between the sympathetic but ineffectual and the cynical and expedient. It's then that Harry - who had put his violent days behind him the day he was married - sets into motion a chain of events that leaves many characters dead and the survivors irrevocably scarred.

There's nothing particularly new or innovative in the story of Harry Brown - it draws quick comparisons to other "Lone man pushed over the edge" movies like Falling Down and DeathWish. And its portrayal of urban rot owes more than a nod to Dirty Harry. But it has far more on its mind than simple vengeance. Harry's revenge against the gangs doesn't leave you with any real satisfaction. Instead, you'll be more likely to feel defeated, and wonder how those affected by violence are to deal with the wreckage that's left behind when personal gestures spiral out of control.

That's not to say the film isn't worth watching. Barber's command of the camera is impressive - a slow tracking shot of smoke in a corridor will transfix you with its menace. A harrowing interrogation sequence reveals the scope of the rot that can't easily be cleaned up. Leonard's funeral scene will kick you in the gut and the film's sound design will beat you about the ears the way the gang members beat on new recruits.

I don't know if Harry Brown's been picked up for Canadian distribution (it starts a UK run in November), but if it does, I'd make a solid attempt to see it. Between anarchy and decay lie no easy answers.

NEXT UP: Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

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