Harry Brown

Harry Brown

Dir: Daniel Barber


Harry Brown conforms to the REVENGE CRIME DRAMA Genre, but it could also be called Social Realism as it is representative of a contemporary situation, with all its difficulties. As with Social  Realist films the stories and people portrayed are everyday characters from working class backgrounds. Typically, the film is a gritty, urban drama about the struggle to survive the daily grind, in this case the problem of out of control young people on an inner city housing estate terrorising ‘ordinary’ people.

The film is also a ‘Revenge’ film, Revenge has always been a very popular motive in literature. You can find it for example in the Bible (“An Eye for an Eye”), in many of Shakespeare’s plays (like Hamlet), but also in contemporary literature. As far as films are concerned, one could say that revenge or vigilante justice have always been popular themes especially of crime/gangster themes but also of films belonging to other genres (e.g. historical films like Gladiator starring Russel Crowe, Western films, Science Fiction or Horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street). One could say that while taking revenge for a crime is not accepted in modern societies, vigilantism is a very popular motive in film. No matter the genre, the expectations of the spectators are always the same: “If you’re going to make a revenge movie, you’ve got to let the hero get revenge. There’s a purity in that. So you set it up: the lead guy gets screwed over. And then you want to see him kill the bad guys – with his bare hands if possible”

The standard equation seems to be this: Hero is betrayed. Hero recovers from betrayal and sets out to exact payback. Paybacks increase in grisliness (causing audience to whoop louder after each battle). Final payback is committed, usually in most obscene of fashion. The End. This standard equation can be applied to nearly every revenge film, from the better (Mel Gibson’s Payback) to the worst (I Spit on Your Grave) the Death Wish series, and most recently Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino.

Films involving violent crime often position the viewer to sympathise with the victim who enacts the revenge by killing, “thus establishing the premise that revenge killing is justified” The reasons for this are quite obvious: Vigilantism in revenge films is often a sign of public frustration in today’s society, because in most cases the police and courts have “failed to deliver security and justice” in these films . This consequently creates a situation that makes personal revenge10 appear necessary and justified in the eyes of the spectators. This is the main theme of Harry Brown.

The following are classic elements of the Crime Drama genre that feature in Harry Brown: Murder, Widower, Council Estate, Drug Dealer, Police Raid, Hospital, Sword, Investigation, Drug Overdose, Ex Soldier, Pub, London, England, Gun Crime, Stab Wound, Shooting, Mugger, Gang, Interrogation, Youth Crime, Chess, Police Pensioner, Mobile Phone, Vigilante, Riot, Arrest, Revenge, Molotov Cocktail, Funeral, Gun, Character Name In Title.

Lighting – attempts to reproduce naturalistic lighting
Settings – on location in urban housing estates.
Hand held camera – making the audience feel that they are part of the action – especially in the opening sequence
Famous actor – unlike social realist films that usually use unknown actors, The star of Harry Brown is an established star, Michael Caine. Caine is famous for appearing in many films that are not necessarily noted for their quality, and is not stereotyped as a gangster actor, although some of his most famous roles have been as gangsters in The Italian Job, Mona Lisa, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Get Carter. Caine is an ex soldier, and saw active service in the Korean War, and he has gone on record as expressing his disgust at the problem of crime by young people in the inner city. He also grew up in the area where the film was set, the Elephant & Castle in South London.

Although not strictly a social realist  film, the film-maker has a specific argument or message to deliver about the social world and employs many realist conventions to express this message or argument. His message, that young people are out of control, that the police can’t do anything about it, that some police are incompetent/corrupt, are common themes. Where the film departs from social realism is where the film turns into a ‘bloodfest’ with Michael Caine murdering everyone in sight.

The film was produced by small production companies whose have produced films such as Me and Orson Welles (Framestore) Severance (Hanway Films) Sex & Drugs and Rock & Roll (Prescience) Stardust, Layer Cake (Marv Films) These are generally low budget, not funded by the ‘studio’s system as they are not great money-makers, so they are often funded independently or through organisations such as the Film Councils, National Lottery, Channel 4 etc. Harry Brown was part funded by the UK Film Council. So far the film has taken nearly $7m at the UK box office, the film is yet to be released in the USA.

In NARRATIVE terms the story is always told in a linear way, with events unfolding around the central characters rather than with plots and sub plots and several narrative strands as in soaps Etc

Lighting – scenes such as in the beginning in the pub, in the subway, in and around Harry’s flat are lit to look as naturalistic as possible.

The film is shot on location on the Aylesbury Estate near the Elephant and Castle, in South London, this helps the audience identify with the characters and adds a strong sense of realism.

The film’s message is direct, subtle, Daniel Barber has gone on record as saying that he is making an important social comment: “I hope that it inspires some sort of a conversation – amongst audiences initially and then leads to a proper conversation in our society about what we’re going to do with what is probably going to become a lost generation if we’re not careful. That’s not a Daily Mail headline or any of that crap… it’s a reality. Having spent quite a bit of time meeting a lot of kids on estates during my research for the film it’s a sorry situation and we’re not doing anything about it. The film speaks about that. Now, you can say that it’s entertainment, which it is. But it does dramatise a serious reality in our country at the moment. Hopefully, because it’s a dramatisation and an entertainment it will attract more people to see it. Nobody would watch a documentary on the subject apart from some middle-class people from Hampstead, which is great for the Guardian readers, but you need to get out there and speak to normal people.”

This is the Director’s first feature length film, and it is not an overtly political film, more a film about  a particular problem in society that frequently manifests itself in real life, young people who are disaffected, older people who are terrorised and most commonly beaten up or killed when they try to intervene, police helplessness at trying to solve social problems – the disintegration of a section of society in an area that in previous generations would have their lives revolve around industry such as the docks. The underlying message is that young people have  no moral values, because they have no hope or aspiration, come from dysfunctional family backgrounds, they come from abused or criminal families themselves, and fall into a spiral of despair – signs of the ‘broken society’.


The director employs a ‘linear narrative’ adhering to conventional narrative structure to make the story more realistic. The film could be analysed using Todorov’s theory of narrative organisation:

A state of equilibrium is defined

Harry Brown is an elderly widower living alone on a high rise estate– his wife dies in the early part of the film – he has a drinking pal, Len, they complain about the out of control kids on their estate.

Disruption to the equilibrium by some action or crisis.

Len’s flat is fire-bombed, he ‘loses it’ and decide to attack the kids with a sword. Police come round and tell Harry that Len has been murdered.

The Character(s) recognition that there has been a disruption, setting goals to resolve problem

Harry is a victim of an attempted mugging, he kills the mugger with his own knife, realising he has gone past the point of no return, and that the police are unable to arrest Len’s killers, he resolves to seek vengeance on Len’s death and take on the out-of-control kids.

The Character(s) attempt to repair the disruption, obstacles need to be overcome to restore order.

Harry goes to buy a gun from local drugs dealers. He is appalled at the way they ignore the plight of a heroin addicted girl. He shoots them, sets fire to the place, and steals their jeep to deliver the girl to hospital. He then kidnaps one of the kids, tortures him trying to get him to confess to Len’s killing, finds that the kid has recorded the killing on his phone. He leads him to the kids accomplices, they accidentally shoot the boy, but they escape. Meanwhile the police are planning an operation to clean up the estate, a riot breaks out.

The disruption reaches a crisis

The 2 officers who were investigating Len’s murder get caught up in it and are injured, Harry rescues them and takes them to the pub, he finds out that the Landlord is one of the boy’s uncles, a struggle ensues, one of the officers is murdered by the uncle, Harry is shot and injured, then shoots the boy, the uncle seems to be getting the upper hand, but then is shot by police marksmen.

Reinstatment to the equilibrium. Situation is resolved, a conclusion is announced.

Harry is seen walking peacefully across the estate. In a police press conference, they say that an enquiry has found no evidence of a lone vigilante. The woman police officer knows that it’s a cover up, and leaves the meeting.


This opening scene is filmed as if on a mobile phone, and shows a young boy’s drug infused induction into a gang. The filming of this particular scene appears as a documentary-style, with two unedited ‘long takes’ in the same primitive style of a short film being recorded on a hand held mobile, giving the opening a poorer film quality with washed out highlights and lack of details in the shadows. The second sequence is a point of view shot of the the boys on the bike after taking drugs, and joyriding a motorcycle through the tight overpasses and walkways of their estate, then shooting at a mother with a push chair, finally hitting her. The image is grainy and the footage shaky. The climax of the long take is the motorcycle being driven in front of a van, the image is of the phone being thrown to the ground giving a ‘worm’s eye’ view of the crashed motorcycle.


Representation of gender.

There is a strong representation of contemporary Britain in post-industrial decline.

Shot on location in South London

Representation of Youth? (Consider against texts such as Kidulthood).

Representation of class (underclass)


Target Audience

Audience Positioning

How does the film allow us to side with and identify with Harry Brown?

Audience reception

Audience Debates


2 Responses to Harry Brown

  1. Could I please have the name of the author for this blog post for a reference for a paper I am writing?

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