TIFF #9: Crime & Punishment in the U.K.

September 18, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

There's nothing quite like a U.K. crime thriller to get the blood flowing. They're a little different than U.S. pictures from the same genre - grimmer and grittier, usually. Less romanticizing of things. More brutal. More bloody. This year's film festival has featured two fine examples. As of last glance, neither had a U.S. distributor, but that will change. Both should eventually be appearing on at least a limited number of screens; they're a little too good to be passed up.

Harry Brown is cut from the Death Wish mold but, like many recent vengeance films, it is more a meditation about the degradation of society than it is an invitation to cheer the triumph of the protagonist. The villains in this film are very, very bad, but their deaths don't provoke the catharsis one might expect. That's because they seem to be a symptom of a societal malaise. Kill one and another will spring up in his place, and next time there won't be a Harry Brown to take him out. All this is in the subtext, of course, but it explains why we don't feel like doing cartwheels when these guys start dropping like flies. The plot points are what we might expect with Charles Bronson, but the tone is altogether different.

Michael Caine is Harry Brown - a pensioner who has just lost his wife and is living on his own in a seedy section of London. Harry's lone pastimes are playing chess with Leonard, his last living friend, and having a quiet pint at the local pub. Crime is rampant in the neighborhood. Local gangs are assaulting innocent passers-by with abandon and the police, led by D.I. Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and her partner D.S. Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles), are unable to do much under the letter of the law to stop the deterioration. Harry remains quietly on the sidelines until Leonard is murdered. Then, seeing that justice won't come through the system, he decides to obtain it his own way. Even though Harry is in his 70s and has emphysema, his training from 50 years ago as a member of the Royal Marines has never left him. Now, he intends to treat the members of the gang who killed Leonard much as he treated the IRA in Ulster.

Harry Brown is intense and director Daniel Barber, making his feature debut after transitioning from the world of TV commercials, knows how to rivet the audience's attention from the beginning. Harry Brown opens with a startling point-of-view sequence that features a motorcycle rampage, a cold-blooded shooting, and a road accident. This is our introduction to the culture and mindset of the thugs against which Harry will be squaring off, and it's an unforgettable one.

Tension is one of Harry Brown's hallmarks and Barber knows how to ratchet it up. There are two instances in which it thickens to palpable levels - one in a marijuana greenhouse into which Harry ventures to procure some firepower and one near the end when the final showdown occurs. Barber's approach is to be relentless in pushing the story forward and, although the general outline may seem familiar, there are plenty of small twists and turns that differentiate Harry Brown from similarly themed predecessors. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Caine is the film's central figure. He brings a sense of gravitas to the proceedings that another actor might be unable to convey. Combining Caine with a taught, uncompromising script and a director who knows what he wants virtually guarantees success. For me, Harry Brown was one of the festival's most pleasant surprises.

Another British crime thriller arrived at Toronto relatively unheralded but quickly generated the "can't miss buzz" that coalesces around a few films every year (last year, for example: Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler, The Hurt Locker). The title is The Disappearance of Alice Creed ant it's at least as intense and as harrowing as Harry Brown. Unlike the other film, The Disappearance of Alice Creed doesn't feature an internationally known star like Michael Caine. It has to get by solely on the basis of a tightly written script, solid acting by unknowns, and a building sense of suspense that finds little relief from beginning to end.

This is essentially a three-character piece, with the only actors being Gemma Arterton (Strawberry Fields in Quantum of Solace) as Alice, Martin Compston (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) as Danny, and the creepy Eddie Marasan (the driving instructor in Happy Go Lucky) as Vic. The director, who uses the cryptic moniker of J Blakeson, has two shorts to his credit behind the camera; this is his feature debut, and it's an impressive, assured one.

The film begins with an electric opening sequence that details the preparations made by Danny and Vic as they prepare to kidnap the unsuspecting Alice. This part of the plan goes off without a hitch - it's while Alice is handcuffed to a bed in a soundproofed room and a ransom demand is being made of her rich father that things start to fall apart. The first two-thirds of The Disappearance of Alice Creed is peppered with tiny revelations and surprises, each of which changes the viewer's perspective ever-so-slightly and allows the movie to shift course. This is 2/3 of a great film, but the last 30 minutes (or so), while not terrible, are anticlimactic. Once the movie gets to a particular point where all the surprises have been sprung and the betrayals committed, there's nowhere else to go but through a routine set of motions. Blakeson has an opportunity to do something memorable with the ending, and he's within a toe of doing it, but he backs away, perhaps fearing that without a compromise, he might lose a distribution deal. All things considered, however, this is a well-paced, entertaining thriller. It's basic, involving, and trusts the actors to carry off the script.

The likelihood is that both Harry Brown and The Disappearance of Alice Creed will be picked up for U.S. distribution by a small distributor like Lionsgate (which owns the U.K. rights for the former) or IFC. After making their way around the autumn film festival circuit, they'll probably show up in art houses next year. If not, there's always DVD, and both are worth seeking out for small screen viewing if the big screen is not an option.

The trailer for Harry Brown: