Film Review - 'Brighton Rock'

Posted by Alexander Hay

This remake not only embodies the flaws of the source material, but includes a few new ones of its own. (Andrea Riseborough's good though...)

Brighton Rock - it's certainly not 1938 any more...

The usual refrains have gone up since Rowan Joffé announced he would make another film adaptation of Graham Greene's 1938 gangster novel, Brighton Rock. Usually, these have been about the redundancy of trying to match the 1947 adaptation, with Richard Attenborough as villainous lost soul Pinkie Brown, or questioning the way the original film's changed ending has been kept for this version.

My own complaint is that the novel on which the films are based really doesn't deserve so much attention, or that many big screen outings. It doesn't really work as a gangster novel - the ending is far too tidy and the characters too archetypical - and the moral ambivalence of the tale smacks less of Greene challenging his readers as him chickening out from actually having to pick a side.

Nor is Pinkie (this time played by Sam Riley) that much of a villain - he's ultimately too much of a weakling and try-hard wannabe to match, for example, an Iago or an Alex Delarge. Instead, like most novels that stray dangerously to being polemics, Brighton Rock becomes more of a trawl through literary imagery than a story in its own right.

In that sense, though, the new version is a faithful adaptation, as it is primarily a showcase of style over substance, from the gratuitously grotty gangsters' hideout, with its peeling wallpaper and sepia grime smeared on to almost comic effect, to the completely superfluous chronological shift from the novel's 1938 setting to 1964, adding all sorts of completely pointless scenes with mods and rockers, and Quarophenia-esque trips down faux memory lane to a film that doesn't need them anyway.

Even the attempt to 'mod' Pinkie seems a bit forlorn and artificial, like the makers just didn't have the confidence in their work to do anything but try to spice it up with commercial-friendly flourishes. If they really wanted to reinterpret the novel, then they should have set it in the present time, where Brighton has become an upper class ghetto for London's media and cultural overspill, but that might be perhaps too subversive for a British film these days.

Then there are the metaphors, the shockingly blatant loud metaphors, the 'big whopping pink polar bear driving a tank through a field of green penguins' metaphors. No image in the film is knowingly undersold: it's all rammed in your face from a close-up shot of Christ on the cross, to a drawer full of hidden weapons to torrents of rain and stone-faced nuns. It's as loud as the soundtrack, which literally booms and roars whenever something dramatic ever happens. It's actually camp.

Much of what else ails the film lies in the limits of the source material. For example, the love story - where Pinkie entraps the virginal Rose (Andrea Riseborough) and perhaps himself into the bargain - is far too contrived and illogical to be believable. Pinkie's nemesis Ida (played here by Helen Mirren), whose pursuit of him is plainly as hubristic and destructive in its own way as Pinkie's attempts to throw her off the scent, seems to get off far too easily (and with John Hurt).

Most of the characters, as said, seem flat and 2-dimensional - Greene and Joffé both confused or confuse vagueness with depth - and the film simply lacks life. It's too overdone, over-produced and over-directed. Even the impressive cast is hog-tied by simply not having much else to do but go through the motions. Only Andrea Riseborough seems able to breathe life into her delusional yet admirably defiant and sincere character. At least it keeps the bowdlerised 1947 ending, however, which does actually work. The novel's own conclusion by contrast seems needlessly sadistic and gratuitous, speaking to a part of the British soul that enjoys the melodramatic suffering of others.

There is, of course, genuine pain in the film's portrayal of Rose's love for Pinkie too, but it's submerged by too much artifice, its softness and truth overwhelmed by the harsh glare of graceless, bombastic cinema.

BRIGHTON ROCK will be on general release from the 4th of February.

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Alexander Hay

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