A new adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel of teen violence does it few favors
Published: October 5, 2011
Directed by Rowan Joffe
So it turns out we will see Sam Riley again. After his indelible 2007 film debut playing legendary Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in Control, he seemed to all but disappear. Now he turns up in another legendary role, as Pinkie Brown, the young blade-wielding British sociopath of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock, and he confirms that his absence from U.S. screens wasn’t due to a thin supply of talent. (He’s due along next as Sal Paradise in the long-gestating film adaptation of On the Road directed by Walter Salles.) The verdict is still out, however, on Brighton Rock’s rookie director, Rowan Joffe. An erstwhile screenwriter (The American, 28 Weeks Later), Joffe shows considerable promise as a visual storyteller, but in translating Greene to the screen he botches the job.
It seems strange to call a film set in gray, grim pre-Swinging ’60s England stylish, but the first few reels of Brighton Rock qualify. In the seaside resort town of Brighton, there’s a criminal turf war heating up, and the head of Pinkie’s crew of thugs gets cut down. As Pinkie and the older toughs he runs with (Philip Davis, Nonso Anozie, and Craig Parkinson) seek revenge, Joffe’s cameras shadow them ducking and slipping between the bright facades of tourist-friendly Brighton and the grimy back alleys and unforgiving stones of the beach under the boardwalk, where the violence tends to go down. These opening reels boast a pounding, careening momentum, fueled by agile camera work, adroit cutting, and exquisite scoring/sound design, culminating in Pinkie’s first murder.
Pinkie knows that mousey tea-room waitress Rose (Andrea Riseborough) can connect him and the boys to the killing, though she doesn’t know it herself. So Pinkie decides to get close to her to ensure she won’t be a problem, wooing her with gruff, contemptuous treatment and, in one memorable moment, perhaps the least charming “charming” smile in cinema history. She responds to this pitch, and it’s at around this point that Brighton Rock begins to founder.
Between Pinkie and Rose’s ill-omened relationship, tea-room matron Ida’s (Helen Mirren) growing concern for Rose and suspicion of Pinkie, and Pinkie’s rise to criminal power while he vies against reigning crime boss Colleoni (a silky Andy Serkis), there’s a novel’s worth of plot here. On top of all that, Joffe, who also wrote the screenplay, resets the action from the 1930s to 1964, just in time for the riots between scooter-driving mods and motorcycle-driving rockers that shook the resort, in order, it seems, to align Pinkie with a less sentimental generation on the rise. Joffe integrates all of this relatively smoothly, though when he puts Pinkie at the literal head of a wave of scooter-back youth symbolically sweeping away the old postwar quaintness, he overplays his hand.
It’s the characters that make no sense. Joffe may hide Riseborough’s fine features, porcelain skin, and slim figure behind a frowsy mop of hair, glasses, and shapeless coats, but she doesn’t read convincingly as someone whose self-esteem is so low that the cold comfort of a brutal killer is her only way out. And while Riley works wonders with Pinkie’s icy viciousness, the character’s early flashes of conscience, hesitation, and even vulnerability are never resolved with the implacable fiend he becomes immediately thereafter. Catholicism and matters of faith are never far from the heart of Greene’s work. A gargantuan crucifix looms in one memorable shot, but despite a few mentions and a quick prayer in a harried moment, the fear of God remains abstract. By the dramatic denouement, Pinkie’s a movie monster, not the flesh-and-blood kind Greene created, and Joffe pulls the final punch in a maddeningly feeble way.
Joffe’s Brighton Rock somehow brings to mind Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. It features the same drab mid-century palette and tatty vibe, the same febrile tenor, and the same ultimate lack of sense and emotional heft. But like Leonardo DiCaprio, Sam Riley seems likely to emerge intact. He isn’t marquee handsome; with his brilliantined hair and boxy features, he often resembles vintage British character actor Jack Hawkins here. But his forceful presence, along with Joffe’s somewhat wasted visual sense, keeps Brighton Rock this side of watchable. Which doesn’t really count as a recommendation, does it?
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