CERT 15, 111 MINS Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock is a Kray-era gangster thriller with a doomed love story at its heart. The film is competently shot and has a firstrate cast including Phil Davis as ratlike Spicer, John Hurt (Mr Corkery) and Helen Mirren as port-andlemon-guzzling Ida. It’s not bad exactly, but it is hard to get excited about: compared with another British thriller set in Brighton, Paul Andrew Williams’s superb London to Brighton (2006), this isn’t half as original, gripping or clever.
Joffe sets his version of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel in 1964 rather than pre-war, to coincide with the mods’ and rockers’ riots that were breaking out in places like Margate and Clacton. You can see the point of that: Greene had an idea about gang violence in Brighton in the 1930s, though really his picture of Brighton is a fantasy – it’s more of a dark state of mind than a realistic portrayal of what went on behind the Regency façades. At any rate, the change of setting means that Joffe can film his hero Pinkie, in green parka jacket, cruising along the Brighton waterfront on his Vespa, followed by a swarm of other mods on scooters. The art directors and costume designers on this picture deserve credit for their attention to detail.
Sam Riley is Pinkie, the flickknife-wielding gang leader who murders a man and then marries the waitress who witnessed the crime so that she can’t incriminate him. Riley made a real impact as Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, in Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007). And he does very much resemble the lead singer in a pop group, which makes it just credible that Rose (Andrea Risborough) should fall for him.
He’s also a sociopath, mind you. It doesn’t take much to work out that he has a splinter of ice in his heart, especially when he grits his teeth and fixes Rose with the cold, unblinking stare. Risborough is an intriguing actress. Her Rose, all wide, crystalline blue eyes and National Health specs, seems odd, to modern eyes: she’s so passive, even for 1964, that it verges on masochism. During an outing Pinkie pinches the back of her hand, hard, so that it hurts. “You can keep doin’ that... if you like it,” says Rose, eerily. The strange emotional interplay between the two of them is what interests Joffe.
My complaint isn’t with the acting, however, though this remake is so similar, frequently, to the Boulting brothers’ classic film noir of 1947 that invidious comparisons are unavoidable. For instance, how can Riley and Risborough match up to Richard Attenborough and Carol Marsh? As for Helen Mirren as Ida, she’s a lot saucier and more knowing than Hermione Baddeley ever was. Baddeley did not wear a diaphanous blouse with racy black underwear showing through. No, the main trouble is that the makers have not brought any radical new vision to the source material. Joffe, who wrote the script and directed, went back to Greene’s book, he says. You might expect him, then, to make more of the Catholic themes in the novel.
For example, Greene intended to compare Catholic ideas of good and evil, represented by Rose and Pinkie, the two “Romans”, with a sort of efficient, humanist ethic of goodness, represented by Ida. Rose and Pinkie do discuss hell in this film. (“It’s the only thing that makes any sense,” says Pinkie. “Flames, damnation and torments.”) But the lines feel tacked on. The novel, in contrast, is deeply preoccupied with the nature of hell and damnation. What is hell actually like? And can human beings ever really change, however hard they try, or is human nature really as Ida says, like a stick of rock? “Bite it all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton.” Joffe’s film bears striking similarities to the 1948 movie. So we see Spicer answering the phone in the gang’s hide-out, gangster Colleone (Andy Serkis, extremely camp) holding court in the all-white Cosmopolitan hotel, Hale (Sean Harris) being chased to the pier at the beginning, Ida drinking in the pub, the screaming baby in the flat above Pinkie and Rose’s digs – all scenes and details that will be familiar if you’ve watched the 1947 Brighton Rock.
Interestingly, the final scene of that version, with its script by Terence Rattigan and Greene, was softened to suit the censors. Greene wanted the movie to retain his novel’s harrowing ending. But it was changed so as to be more merciful, to suggest that everything is all right in the end. As a result, the resolution comes across as rather neat and contrived. Joffe chooses this ending.
Nowadays there are no censors, so why didn’t he restore the “original” conclusion? Perhaps he thought it was too harsh. Or perhaps he thought the audience couldn’t take it.