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Originally published Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 3:02 PM

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Movie review

'Harry Brown': Michael Caine becomes vigilante in drama about life under siege

"Harry Brown" is Daniel Barber's violent revenge drama starring Michael Caine as a man at his wit's end.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

'Harry Brown,' with Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Charlie Creed Miles, Ben Drew, Liam Cunningham, David Bradley. Directed by Daniel Barber, from a screenplay by Gary Young. 102 minutes. Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, drug use and sexual content. Uptown, Metro.

"I'll be all right," says elderly pensioner Harry Brown (Michael Caine), his voice thick with sadness. But he's not all right, and nothing's been right in his world for quite a while. He's a former Royal Marine and recent widower, who with his wife lost a young daughter (when and why, we don't know) some time ago. He lives alone in a carefully tidy flat on a miserable council estate in east London, where drug-dealing thugs rule the sidewalks and the law-abiding peer quietly from behind their curtains in the dark. And he's just been told that his best friend has been murdered by a gang of punks, for whom prosecution seems unlikely.

"Harry Brown," the feature film debut from director Daniel Barber, introduces us to a man at his wits' end, who doesn't know what happened to the world he used to know — and who is determined to take action, however violent, rather than cower. And while the movie at times strains credibility (this "vigilante pensioner" seems to have a few extra lives) and is difficult to watch, it haunts the viewer with its details of life under siege. "I'm scared all the time," says Harry's friend Len (David Bradley), speaking of the lawless teenagers who make his life hell. And Harry makes a point of avoiding the crime-ridden pedestrian underpass near his building, even though the shortcut would save his aging legs.

But at the center of this violent revenge drama — it's almost a Western, ending up with a saloon (well, a pub) shootout — is something quiet and nonshowy: two delicate, heartfelt performances that perfectly complement each other. Emily Mortimer, with her crumpled little voice, plays a weary-looking police inspector determined to help clean up the area, but cognizant that too often her hands are tied. And Caine, that master of gentle sadness, lets us know Harry immediately as a good man trying to get by — and trying to understand what seems like madness.

"This isn't Northern Ireland," the inspector, who's becoming aware of Harry's actions, quietly tells him. "No," he says, a lifetime of pain behind his words. "Those people were fighting for something."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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