REVIEW: In Search of Fresh Style, Brighton Rock Loses its Soul

Movieline Score:

Graham Greene's 1938 masterpiece Brighton Rock is an enduring curio of fiction: A literary pulp novel ahead of its time, a gangland allegory of sin and the cost of redemption, and perhaps most fascinating, a pre-WWII oracle anticipating the traumatic British century to come. It's a prism through which all the harrowing perils of class strife, organized crime and romantic love bend and refract into Greene's glowing white weave of language, which, when projected onto a screen, have yielded both an equally classic 1947 screen adaptation and now Rowan Joffe's troubled updating.

A screenwriter (The American, 28 Weeks Later) here making his feature directing debut, Joffe clearly has deep affection for both Greene's novel and the earlier film; his feel for the story of the swift rise and fall of vicious teenage gangster Pinkie Brown blends source loyalty with an evident intent to find the deepest cinematic meaning in that source. His film makes lovely use of nature -- both human and earthly, both at their most fearsome -- in the same broad genre strokes Greene embraced in his prose. But where Joffe purposely departs from Brighton Rock deprives his movie of the book's most revelatory element: Faith. Gorgeous, ambitious and daring as it often is, Brighton Rock has no soul.

The problems start with Pinkie himself, played by Sam Riley. Setting aside the actor's age (he was 29 when the film was produced; Greene's antihero is 17, thus cutting his sociopathy with a liberal dose of immaturity, and thus a hint of sympathy), his tormented Roman Catholic has been reimagined as a class-climbing Mod, that secular, supple, scooter-riding and skinny-tie-rocking creature born out of Great Britain's postwar ruins and emerging to socioeconomic power in the '60s. Joffe chooses 1964 for his adaptation, the flashpoint of a culture war between Pinkie's cohort and the slightly older, leather-clad tribe of Rockers. Against this backdrop we are plunged into Greene's bigger preoccupation: the gang war between posh, effete Colleoni (Andy Serkis) and Pinkie's beloved war-vet mentor Kite (Geoff Bell), the latter of whose killing by Hale (Sean Harris) commences the film's -- and Pinkie's -- bloody tumble into vengeance.

First intimidated by Hale, then driven to murder him in an outburst below the chipped, ancient Brighton pier, Pinkie further imposes his newfound ruthlessness on the gang-leadership vacuum left by Kite's death. Middle-aged lush Spicer (Phil Davis) isn't going to accept that, however, despite irresponsibly leaving a witness to their pursuit of Hale on the pier above. This witness, Rose (Andrea Riseborough), becomes the gawky target of Pinkie's power grab. She's a tea-room waitress vulnerable to the cheek scar and piercing stare radiating authority over Pinkie's perpetually coiled chin. Her boss Ida (Helen Mirren), an old flame of Hale's, has seen it all, and she observes their sham courtship with a skepticism that gives way to suspicion and, finally, full-blown snooping.

Before I continue, let me disclose that I've never felt like Greene satisfactorily substantiated Ida's instincts and distaste for Pinkie in the book. It's true that their conflict had roots in the author's own ongoing struggle to reconcile the godlessness of his early adulthood and the Catholic faith he adopted in 1926, a clash represented by Ida's freewheeling street smarts and Pinkie's fear of damnation at every calculated turn. That's great for a metaphor, but it never made for much in the way of narrative, if only because Ida's only purpose seems to be to heighten a more important spiritual paranoia that has already reached its apex. It just reads like Greene piling on, and it's hard to buy.

I only bring it up because Joffe's adaptation appears to relate to and try to correct this flaw. But in truly making Brighton Rock his own, Joffe downplayed the wrong side of the equation: Pinkie is now a man of wits, preoccupied with God only insofar as He might save him during a sprint from Colleoni's thugs, or in his bitter acknowledgement to Rose that their relationship is one founded in sin. Adhering to Pinkie's self-preserving villainy in this context means shifting the religious burden on to Rose, whose own convictions are clouded not by unquestioning faith but rather her unalloyed love for the first man to ever take an interest in her. To the extent she consults with God, her prayers here come off like a betrayal -- inconsistent with her worship of Pinkie and ultimately incidental to the viewer.

Riseborough is a pleasure to watch in any case -- hardly Greene's "pale, thin girl who was younger than [Pinkie]," but nor is Riley the character Greene's third-person narrator referred to strictly as "the Boy." She outclasses him, in fact, a mousy naïf made a curious woman despite (and finally because of) his leer and contempt. Joffe's toying with era is not kind to Rose; "I hope you're on the Pill, love" the beleaguered Ida says to her, adding with a bludgeoning, foreshadowing thud, "You don't want to have a murderer's baby." (Only Mirren can upstage the young actress here, and not by much.) Yet where it can, Riseborough's elegant adaptability matches that of Brighton Rock itself. What she brings to everything from Rose splurging on Mod coutour to her escaping life in one of Britain's hideous postwar tenement towers underscores Greene's perennial class concerns with a resonance that showier elements like the film's huge Mods-Rockers riot set piece simply don't have.

But even if we accept an older Pinkie -- one whose transgressions and black-eyed fury necessarily shock less than they would were he 17 -- it's hard to get behind Riley here. He's adrift in the role, anchored to the Angry Young Man mythology of the '60s but incapable of striking that movement's crucial balance between rage and rationality. It's an intriguing, maybe even necessary conceit on his and Joffe's part; playing Pinkie in the 1947 version, a 23-year-old Richard Attenborough cornered the market on cutthroat equanimity. Here he's simply an asshole with a switchblade and a bottle of vitriol.

The rest of the film is sound enough. Joffe and cinematographer John Mathieson pay vital tribute to Greene's noir inflections, virtually fetishizing the roiling, moonlit ocean tide and the decrepitude of the pier looming over it. John Hurt does his wheezy, weary John Hurt thing, and Harris brings his usual sinewy nastiness to his brief role. Notably, Joffe trades the novel's vague coda for the ingenious, devastating twist invented by Greene and co-writer Terrence Rattigan in their original adaptation. Here the necessity and futility of faith square off at last, and finally we hear the beating heart of Greene's achievement. Quiet as it may be throughout, we can take comfort in knowing it persists.

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