Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock was adapted for the screen once before, in a 1947 film starring Richard Attenborough, and released in America as Young Scarface. Now Rowan Joffé has adapted and directed a new version, noting that the earlier one was modulated to the sensibilities of its times. In many ways it succeeds in improving on the first adaptation, but it seems to pull back from the source in some ways as it pushes forward in others. Still, as a thrilling noir tale it succeeds, even if it loses the theological overtones of Greene’s Passion play.
The story is transposed from the 1930s to the 1960s, in the era of the mods and with youth riots breaking out all along the southern coast of England. Against the Coney-Island-esque background of the Brighton boardwalk, a minor gang war comes to a head. The small Kite mob is on the wane as a new, better-organized one headed by one Mr. Colleoni (Andy Serkis) moves in, leading to Kite’s murder. Though the older Spicer (Phil Davis) might normally step in, the young Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley) has more ambition; he murders Hale, Kite’s murderer, in retaliation.
The big catch is that Hale was seen together with Spicer by Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a young waitress in a seaside restaurant. Worse, an eager photo-seller snapped their picture and gave her the claim slip in the hopes she’d buy a souvenir print later. It falls to Pinkie to take care of this loose end.
And so begins a queer sort of romance. Within the context of the film, it’s difficult to clearly understand how Pinkie and Rose relate to each other. It’s confusing why Pinkie doesn’t just kill Rose and have done with it, especially as he repeatedly tells anyone but her how he loathes her. And on the other side it’s inexplicable how she can instantly love someone who’s such an obvious brute, even towards her. On a literary and semiotic level, though, they’re an obvious duo; she believes devoutly in heaven, while he is just as sure there’s a hell.
Where Joffé may be no match for Greene when it comes to screenwriting — which is odd since he did so much better with The American — he is a crafty director, and the film is visually stunning. It plays like a noir, but the adaptation draws heavily from a Gothic tradition, and Pinkie makes for an excellent Byronic hero. Riley cannot nearly play him as the teenager Greene wrote, but nothing specific is said of his age other than that he is notably younger than most of his colleagues. Being notably older than Rose plays into the Byronic mode, whether it’s true to the source or not.
Though Rose seems a bit of a stretch as a character, Riseborough absolutely steals the show with her performance. And Joffé manages to enlist both Helen Mirren and John Hurt in solid supporting roles, who work together to shape and direct the flow of the story. And though he shows up only rarely, Serkis has a great chance to show that he can act even when not wearing a motion-capture suit.
As a film on its own, Brighton Rock is a gripping, emotional tragedy that draws you along despite the lack of clear motives for its main characters, but as an adaptation of Greene’s novel it falls woefully short. Still, as an indication of what Joffé is capable of as a director it’s a great way to spend a couple hours on the edge of your seat.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.