Director: Rowan Joffe
By Roderick Heath
Perhaps Graham Greene’s best-known novel, 1938’s Brighton Rock, was filmed first in 1947 by John Boulting and proved a foundation stone for the British strand of film noir. Greene’s survival and ascension to become one of the most recognised and admired writers from his era says something about the durability of Greene’s no-nonsense prose and capacity to blend serious thematic and psychological investigation with solid storytelling. Perhaps Greene’s durability depends in part on the fact that he knew the cinema well and understood its likely impact on audiences for literature as well, sensing intuitively how the two arts would eventually help define each other. Boulting’s film hinged on the capacity of young star Richard Attenborough to project baby-faced menace and oily charm in equal measure. The new version of Brighton Rock seems much more a work laden with a self-conscious sense of legacies—of Greene, of British and classic film noir history, and of director Rowan Joffe, the son of ill-fated faux-auteur Roland Joffe. Joffe the younger makes his feature directing debut with the film after two telemovies and some strong screenwriting work, like his admirably curt script for Anton Corbijn’s The American (2010). Joffe’s script retains the storyline and moral permeations of Greene’s novel, but his cinematic tone is rather different to the sort of dry, unadorned compactness Greene specialised in.
Sam Riley, the young star of Corbijn’s overrated, but sturdy Control (2009), takes over Attenborough’s role as Pinkie Brown, young psychopath and emblem of troubled youth and Catholic angst. Joffe’s adaptation is reset in 1964, the year of the infamous Mod-Rocker riot previously depicted in Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia (1979). Pinkie is the sort of youth who keeps a drawer full of weapons of pain and carries a vial of acid in his pocket. Initially, he’s an minor stand-over man for a bookie, Bell (Danny Banks), who is semi-accidentally stabbed to death in the opening scene by rival hoods led by Colleoni (Andy Serkis). That opening is shot in boldly expressionistic style by Joffe, with rain, abstracted architecture, silhouettes, and pooled source lighting, and punctuated with blasts of menacing Inception-style horns that suggest things of great and terrible import are about to occur. Here Joffe announces his seeming intent to return a bit of old-school cinematic vigour to the contemporary screen.
Bell’s small crew, including the aging, vexed Spicer (Phil Davis) and hulking Dallow (Nonso Anozie), plan moderated revenge upon Bell’s killer, Hale (Sean Harris). Pinkie finds Hale in a public toilet, but his hesitation allows Hale to fake him out and then disarm him. Pinkie and the rest of the crew track him to Brighton Pier, where he is chasing girls and trying to pick up mousy Rose Wilson (Andrea Riseborough). When Spicer finds him, he, Hale, and Rose are snapped by a pier photographer, who gives Rose a ticket to claim the picture later. When Pinkie chases down Hale and gets a cut on the face from his knife, Pinkie tackles him and beats his head in with a rock. Shocked, Spicer orders Pinkie to get close to Rose so he can steal the ticket to claim the photograph.
Rose works as a waitress in the tea shop of Ida (Helen Mirren), a hardened, independent woman. A friend of Hale’s and of independent bookie Phil Corkery (John Hurt), Ida catches wind of Pinkie’s killing of Hale and sets out to nail him, especially when she learns of Rose’s swiftly forming infatuation for him. Rose is immediately compelled by Pinkie’s air of intensity and because he appeals to a budding masochistic streak in her: “You can keep doing that…if you like it,” she whispers as he fiercely twists the skin on her hand in a moment of pique. Rose quickly enough realises Pinkie’s outlaw status, but digs it: chafing against the dowdy parsimony of working-class life, she interestingly contrasts Ida, a woman with a wholehearted, yet unwholesome romanticism. The change in milieu then interestingly reconfigures the asocial impulses of Greene’s young characters from the ’30s, where they were violently out of place, into one in which they fit, if darkly—the ’60s youth movement. Pinkie and Rose contrast their older doubles, Spicer and Ida, whose dreams and expectations are small-scale self-realisation: Spicer wants to own a pub in the north, and Ida enjoys her no-strings coterie of “gentleman friends” that excludes the sort of transcendent ardour and emotional outlet the younger folk seek at all costs.
It’s peculiarly telling then that Joffe’s version of Brighton Rock sees Rose rather than Pinkie become its most affecting character. That’s not entirely deliberate: both Joffe’s awkward script and Riley’s surprisingly one-note characterisation conspire to limit what ought to be Pinkie’s impact, considering that he was the prototypical version of Alex DeLarge, the main figure of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, as lightning rod for everything sexy and amoral about dangerous youth. Whilst he’s effective enough in early scenes as Pinkie begins to grow swiftly in sensing his power—legally endangered and religiously damned and yet psychically liberated by his killing of Hale—Riley spurns the vulnerable, quicksilver sensitivity he showed in his performance as Ian Curtis in Control, which might have effectively permeated this role. It becomes hard to see just why Rose falls so heavily for him: he’s just too much the knit-browed young psycho. The result eventually seems cartoonish in portraying pathetic neediness and masochistic impulse meeting a perfect illusion-spinning antihero.
This lack of finesse is apparent on several levels in Brighton Rock as it quickly proves that Joffe has less an inherent sense of the classic film styles he tries to evoke, and more a serious case of that tragic malady known as The Director Thinks They’re Hitchcock Syndrome, a disease that strikes one out of ten young directors. Pointlessly florid crane and tracking shots, and hammy Herrmann-esque orchestral sounds threaten to drown the felicities of his better ideas. Joffe’s film school cinema embroiders but hardly suits the carbolic hiss of Greene’s writing, which was far better put across on screen by cold-blooded bastards like Carol Reed and Otto Preminger.
Rather inevitably, but in a well-staged fashion, a riot features in a set-piece sequence. This comes when Pinkie decides to have Spicer killed after he rats him out to the police (the excellent actor Maurice Roëves appears for about 30 seconds as Pinkie’s grilling police detective). Having received and accepted an offer of partnership from Colleoni, a smoothed-over overlord ensconced in the Brighton Grand Hotel, Pinkie arranges to have Colleoni’s men kill Spicer under the pier. But the mods are streaming into town, and in Joffe’s best moment, Pinkie gives Spicer a lift to what he thinks will be a business meeting on his scooter and finds himself surrounded by a flotilla of such vehicles, menacing music droning as the oncoming tide of dark energy enfolds and briefly includes Pinkie’s life arc. But he swiftly finds himself outside it again as Colleoni’s boys try to kill him as well, and he finishes up fleeing stiletto-wielding thugs amidst a landscape of convulsive violence as the youth armies begin to battle. Such a moment nods to both Roddam and also the equally helter-skelter depiction of the collapse of Cambodia in papa Roland’s The Killing Fields (1984).
The film introduces early on Pinkie’s strange version of Catholicism where Hell is much more vivid and literal to him than any notion of paradise, willing on perdition and the resulting sensation of gloriously evil he gains from this notion and which Rose is attracted to. “I don’t want to be good!” she shouts at Pinkie, to his retort, “No, I’m bad, and you’re good. We’re made for each other.” Sadly, Joffe underscores the point in a sequence in which they get married, with Pinkie cast in shadows and Rose aglow in a shaft of sun. An equally snigger-worthy interlude comes when Rose visits church and Joffe indulges the inevitable Catholic fetishism with massed candles. It’s like an early Madonna video.
The incapacity of Joffe to get a solid grip on the deeper dimensions of the story, which are pretty old-hat at the best of times, and the way both Pinkie and Rose get off on their calculated blasphemies, mean that his film never successfully elevates itself above relatively factotum bad-boy melodrama. Brighton Rock offers the standard refrains of the British gangster flick in which the scary-sexy monster compels and alarms those around him but located in a quaint period setting. Those refrains were probably largely instituted by Greene’s work and its influence on Burgess’s, but with strands going back to Oliver Twist’s Bill Sykes and Nancy, and reproduced in quite a lot of British gangster films in recent years, including Sexy Beast, Essex Boys, and Gangster No. 1, all from 2000. Still, Joffe and Riseborough conspire to pull off one excellent moment late in the film, in which Rose succumbs to temptation and steals ₤10 to buy herself a hip dress, twirling with oblivious, pitiable pleasure before Pinkie, who’s furious at a visit from Ida and who is becoming convinced Rose will sell him out. Joffe also at least does right in his recreations of period squalor and depression, particularly in a scene in which Rose takes Pinkie to meet her father (Steve Evets), from whom he basically buys Rose for ₤150. This is the shitty world hidden behind the glitz of the Brighton waterfront and the castlelike Grand Hotel which keeps its toffy clients well protected from the grim grittiness of the street and which gives ambient context to the rage and frustration of the kids who aren’t alright.
The usually reliable Serkis unfortunately delivers a sorry piece of archness in his appearances as Colleoni, seated upon a chaise lounge and petting its fabric with erotic menace. Mirren’s role and performance are both rather clichéd, indicating Joffe fell prey to the problems of celebrity casting. Joffe utilises a vicious couplet of sequences added by Greene to the script of the 1947 film, and recreates them almost exactly the way Boulting shot them. Rose, beaming with hopeful ignorance through the glass of a recording booth in which Pinkie, cajoled by her to put his voice on vinyl, records a gruesomely abusive message for her; she can’t listen to the message because neither of them has a record player. When Rose finally gets hold of a player at the end, after she’s been cast into a borstal for her complicity in Pinkie’s crimes, the disc skips and keeps repeating a part of the message, “I love you,” over and over. In the 1947 film, this was clearly linked to a rather cute but affecting piece of transcendental reassurance on the behalf of a nun; here the ramification is much less clear, suggesting that Rose is more a hopeless self-deluder and emotional junkie, and the very last shot seems weirdly inexact and hammy. The problem of Joffe’s constantly indebted style is finally sharpened to a point; his film comes across like a system of borrowed affectations and meanings without ever quite developing a personality of its own. By the time its rather overwrought finale rolls around, in which Pinkie expires rather fittingly with a face full of his own acid before plunging over a white cliff of Dover, Brighton Rock is already too clearly a failure in ambition, substance, and style. The better scenes, Riseborough’s and Hurt’s excellent performances, and John Mathieson’s lively photography, do suggest what a more mature cinematic talent might have managed.