Brighton Rock (2010)

06 February 2011

Rowan Joffe's first feature film, Brighton Rock, is an adaptation of Graham Greene's 1938 novel, following the Boulting Brothers' 1947 adaptation starring Richard Attenborough. It updates the original story to the 1960s, using as a useful backdrop the Mods and Rockers clashes that for many defined an era, and tells the story of young gangster Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley), who, when he kills a rival gang member at the beach, must court and finally marry the only witness Rose (Andrea Riseborough) in order to keep her quiet.

The film opens with an immediately atmospheric night scene that declares the film's intentions as a noir. It's also quite violent, and there's a lot of swearing. Hereafter, most of the film takes place during daylight, so as to make the most of its local setting in visual terms; from the outset, it's a very self-conscious film.

Many of the film's problems stem from the fact that the plot is inconsequential. Catholicism rings large for its characters: Pinkie talks of a "hell" mor eoften than a "heaven", and when midway through the film he thinks he may be caught in a chase by rival gangsters, he prays. The final act of the film, following Pinkie and his new wife Rose, has much to do with "sin" and the foibles of religious doctrine.

Much ado about nothing, however: Joffe's treatment dwarfs the Boultings' film in size and length, and is no better for it. Scenes - such as that windswept crane shot of the two lovers kissing on the Dover cliffs - come off as kitschy; Martin Phipps's score adds melodrama but not tension, and is in any case overblown; its cast are like whimsical creatures without much to do, because their characters lack nuance, are fundamentally stereotyped.

Peter Bradshaw notes in The Guardian that "Riley and Riseborough are both good" but doesn't really say what they're good at; in praising Riley, what are we meant to be praising? We certainly don't care what happens to him as a character, and there's little conviction in his transition from the non-commital youth who botches a 'slash-job' at the beginning of the film to the one who casually strolls into rival gang leader Colleoni (Andy Serkis) claiming to be the leader of his gang. Riseborough makes her character more interesting, certainly, and as the manageress of the café where she works, Helen Mirren offers her skills and weight to a role that nevertheless doesn't ring true.

Bradshaw correctly observes, however, the jarring effect of updating the work to include the Mods and Rockers, while at the same time retaining Pinkie et al. as racecourse gangsters, as they were in the novel and the earlier film. In updating the setting, the main characters have not been adjusted accordingly, which alongside certain other elements - Joffe's claim to be adapting the novel not remaking the film, while retaining the latter's famously unfaithful final moments; the token black character who's never got a bad thing to say about anyone but whose glaringly conspicuous ethnicity in 1960s Britain is never touched upon; the tendency to overkill the power of suggestion by then showing us what was suggested anyway (the scene after the Dover cliffs climax) - are telling of the film's aesthetic, moral and artistic confusion.