By David Katz
Rowan Joffe’s new adaptation of Brighton Rock, here relocated from the 30s to the 60s, plays better if you come in unfamiliar with the earlier versions. Although not without its flaws it’s a pacy, engaging film, a well-worn tale retold with flair and panache.
Leading the story is the seminal anti-hero Pinkie Brown (capably played by Sam Riley), a disenfranchised youth embroiled in Brighton’s seedy underbelly of organised crime. After his gangland boss is killed in the film’s rain-sodden opening sequence Pinkie is sent to murder the perpetrator, Hale, armed with his trademark rusty flick-blade. Hale finally succumbs after a scuffle beneath the Brighton Pier but the beautiful Rose (Andrea Riseborough) is photographed beside him on top and is thus a witness to his eventual death. The narrative follows Pinkie’s courtship of Rose; frightened that she’ll talk to the police he woos her hoping that his contrived gestures of romance will guarantee her silence.
Like many cinematic adaptations of classic crime fiction, the plot glosses over the original’s plot complexity in favour of something brisker and brighter. In spite of its 21st century cinematic sheen, however, this version of Brighton Rock is a complex dance between good and evil. Pinkie’s character boasts a sociopathic brutality that we are forced to both engage with and judge from our own perspective. Against the film’s backdrop of Catholic guilt and sin, does Pinkie deserve forgiveness or absolution for his crimes? This is the question Joffe pursues despite overt opposition from the straightforwardly moralistic Ida (Helen Mirren). Her determination to rescue Rose is borne from a meddling maternal self-belief in what’s best for the young newlywed and it has tragic consequences.
So this new Brighton Rock has a sturdy and intelligent centre, but there are other elements in the film threaten to knock it off balance. There is often a curious disjunction between what we can see and what’s said: a monosyllabic script gives the impression of a blandly plotted mob saga, in spite of the whole film’s overriding uniqueness of tone – this is a tautly plotted film that deserves the verbal flair of Carol Reed’s Greene adaptation The Third Man, not the stale flavour of a midweek ITV1 police drama. Riley, for instance, has screen presence to burn but struggles in imposing his character. His interpretation of Pinkie is not quite charming or romantic enough to likely attract Rose, nor forceful and persuasive enough to keep her away from potentially tattling to the police.
The setting’s mods-and-rockers update clashes nastily with Pinkie and Colleoni’s protection disputes which seem like leftovers from a bygone era. Joffe also tries to ground Pinkie’s aimless rage within a wider context of 60s youth liberation, but this is too tenuous, because Joffe only gives voice to this context in superficial ways: the procession of mods on motorbikes in Quadrophenia style and Rose’s trendy cotton jacket is all the political turmoil of the 60s amounts to in this film. Joffe’s Brighton Rock, then, for all its allusions to gangland danger, takes place in an oddly artificial realm, a dowdy pick-and-mix of British signifiers from the first fifty years of the 20th century. When considering these aspects of the film, the film’s poor reception from some critics begins to ring true.
It’s tempting to compare Brighton Rock with the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit. Both films are supposedly fresh adaptations of well-loved novels, preceding an original version from the classic schools of Hollywood western and British noir. But unlike the Coens’ excellent recent film, Joffe is unable to knead a promising existing story into something that stands on its own, and his film cannot exorcise the shadows of its predecessors.. Brighton Rock (2010) is, however, a fine exercise in style and it certainly captures that unmistakable salty whiff of Brighton pier, with dark, violent waves lapping ominously underneath.
Brighton Rock is available on DVD and Blu-ray from the 20th of June 2011.