By Don Simpson | September 1, 2011
Director: Rowan Joffe
Writers: Rowan Joffe, Graham Greene (novel)
Starring: Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Helen Mirren, John Hurt, Philip Davis, Nonso Anozie, Craig Parkinson, Andy Serkis, Sean Harris
Pinkie’s (Sam Riley) dead-eyed stare lends him an eerie soullessness while a scar across his cheek further magnifies his creepiness. As a low-level thug in a second-rate gang in Brighton, Pinkie overcompensates for his powerlessness with a sociopathic propensity for violence. A key witness in a crime that would certainly send Pinkie to the gallows, Rose (Andrea Riseborough) falls in love with Pinkie after one date — you know, because good girls always fall for the bad boys.
Pinkie never shows an ounce of kindness towards Rose, yet she knowingly puts her life at risk for him. Is Rose naïve or genuinely slow-witted? Why is a devout Catholic such as Rose willing to forsake heaven for the love of an unabashedly evil man? Is she merely looking for an escape from her working-class father’s tyrannical control — a control he is willing to relinquish to Pinkie for a negotiated price of less than two hundred quid?
The only moment when Pinkie shows any sign of concern for Rose’s well-being is when he opts not to knock her off. Instead, Pinkie marries Rose (with no ring), smartly comprehending that she cannot be forced to testify against him if she becomes his wife. Ida (Helen Mirren), Rose’s boss at the local tea shop, attempts to explain Pinkie’s motive to the all-too-daft Rose but it is too little too late.
Screenwriter Rowan Joffe’s (The American and 28 Weeks Later) directorial debut is the second film adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 source novel. Brighton Rock was first adapted by Greene and Terence Rattigan for director John Boulting. Also known as Young Scarface, Boulting’s 1947 film stars Richard Attenborough as Pinkie. Revered by some as the pinnacle of British film noir, Boulting’s version features gritty location shooting and a significantly different character dynamic.
Greene’s novel and the 1947 film are deeply entrenched in metaphysical questions: the true nature of this world; the existence of God; personal freedom, or the lack thereof. The characters hold radically differing views on these subjects. Ida sees only the material world — Brighton’s cheerful facade — not the squalor and crime of the underworld. She enjoys life, relentlessly over-indulging in sex and booze; but despite her amoral [read: Godless] behavior Ida represents the force of justice. She is a likable heroine, but we sense that Greene does not at all endorse of her opinions. Ida sets out to save Rose’s mortal life, as Rose hopes to save Pinkie’s immortal soul. Rose is conventionally “good” in a place where “good” and “evil” coexist; Pinkie and Rose live in a common world, a place where non-Catholics such as Ida are merely tourists. Brighton plays as a metaphor for heaven and hell; but for Pinkie it is mostly hell (he cannot fathom what heaven is like).
Jaffe’s film severely tones down Greene’s Catholicism thus muddying Rose and Pinkie’s motivations for their seemingly self-destructive actions. Take the Catholicism out of a Greene story and what are you left with? Absolutely nothing.
Updating the time period from the 1930s to the mods versus rockers youth riots of 1964 further confuses matters. With this modernization, is Joffe attempting to suggest a relationship between Pinkie (and Brighton’s seedy underground) and the rebellious youth movements of the 1960s? Could Joffe be trying to draw a correlation between the old (mobsters) and the new (mods and rockers)? But, other than a means to distract Brighton’s vacationers from the violence of the local mobsters, the youth riots seem totally inconsequential to Roffe’s narrative. As if a world of seedy mobsters is not harrowing enough, injecting the unrest between leather-jacketed rockers on motorcycles and fashion-savvy Mods on scooters into the backdrop of the narrative escalates the senselessness of the modern world. Teenagers arrive full force, and the older generations are rendered powerless. One could easily draw comparisons to the recent riots in London — and even though Joffe made this film well before those riots, the tone of his adaptation echoes the hopelessness of the propaganda being perpetuated by Conservative Britain.(That said — Brighton Rock is not nearly as propagandist as Harry Brown.)
This negative tone goes along with Joffe’s ominous and gloomy [read: stereotypical] visual portrayal of the southern British coast. Cinematographer John Mathieson (X-Men: First Class, Gladiator) paints Brighton with noirish fog and shadows on the edge of a turbulent and jet-black sea; all the while, the characters bathe in heavenly natural light.
The sole benefit of relocating the film to this particular time period — other than the visual aesthetic, specifically the fetishization of fashion — is to add a splash of feminist complexity to Rose’s character. Rose aggressively pursues Pinkie and does not flinch whenever he flexes his masculine aggression (such as when Pinkie drags Rose to the edge of the Seven Sisters). Rose reveals her independence and fearlessness when she steals Pinkie’s money to buy a mod dress. (Is she taking sides in the riots?) Joffe’s fleeting reference to the birth control pill all but confirms his intention for us to view Rose as a proto-feminist. But how many feminists — no matter how proto — would fall for Pinkie’s line, “I like a girl who’s friendly… You’re sensitive, like me”?
The social and sexual upheaval of the 1960s would have provided an interesting backdrop for Pinkie, if only he retained the social insecurities, sexual repression and Catholicism of Greene’s character. And despite taking place 30 years after the book, blades are surprisingly still Pinkie and the mob’s weapon of choice — I often wondered how the presence of guns would have changed the chase and fight sequences.
We know Clyde loves Bonnie just as we know Kit loves Holly, but Pinky and Rose are among the most reprehensible couples in modern literature (and cinema). I am just not sure how I feel about Riley (Control) and Riseborough’s (Never Let Me Go) performances. At least Joffe avoids sentimentalizing their relationship — well, except for the closing scene (which portrays a [quasi-religious] miracle that protects Rose from the hurtful truth).