The Boulting Brothers’ 1947 adaptation of the Graham Greene novel Brighton Rock is considered one of the treasures of British cinema, so using the same material for your directorial debut shows that Rowan Joffe, son of director Roland and best known on his own terms as screenwriter for 28 Days Later and The American, has no shortage of confidence in his ability.
To be fair, it’s not entirely misplaced. There is much to admire in this new Rock: it’s visually bold, thematically rich and features a sterling performance from lead actress Andrea Riseborough. The film stumbles when Joffe’s ambition gets the better of him, but at least this is a British film which looks like it belongs on the big screen and is brave enough to present its own vision without cowering before the imposing reputation of the Boultings’ original. Devotees of Greene’s source text might want to look elsewhere though, as there are no shortage of liberties taken.
The most immediately noticeable of these liberties comes in setting the story three decades after the novel in 1964, the year of youth riots, mods and rockers, the rise of atheism and the approaching end of capital punishment in Britain. It’s a clever decision: much of the original novel is long outdated now – not to say that it isn’t an excellent read, but you have to understand the period in which it was written – and the 60s is both a more familiar decade and one whose events had a tangible effect on shaping the face of modern England. Greene’s novel and the Boulting Brothers film primarily concerned themselves with Catholic guilt and the possibility of spiritual redemption. Joffe pays lip-service to these ideas, but seems more interested in exploring the possibility of change on a personal rather than spiritual level and examining the delusions we create for ourselves in trying to find a place in a hostile world. Joffe shoots the film with this last theme at the forefront of his mind. Brighton to the innocent eye is a beachside resort full of colour and innocent pleasures, where the happiness of childhood can live forever. But when night falls, the jolly sea turns an oily black, pounding on the shore where the pebbles appear as half-buried skulls that glisten with the blood spilled under the famous pier. As the comforts of the old times fall apart under the rise of atheism and a violent new youth movement, so too are the carnival shacks and booths fading into dilapidation. Far from living forever, Joffe’s Brighton is a place where childhood goes to die.
The end-of-eras mentality brings modern relevance to the gangland culture of Greene’s novel that is otherwise one of its more anachronistic elements. Pinkie, the sociopathic teenage gang leader who seduces an emotionally fragile witness in order to prevent her from talking, is fighting a losing battle against his refusal to accept his place on the wrong side of history, as opposed to the religious guilt that overwhelmed him in the novel. He is still a devoted Catholic, but that’s just one of the many aspects of his character at odds with the changing world in Joffe’s film, rather than a primary conflict. In Rose, the meek waitress who finds herself embroiled in a murder, he finds an outsider who shares his hurt and isolation, but hates and abuses her for bringing out feelings he wants to suppress to fulfil his dream of becoming the feared leader of Brighton’s underworld (which is itself being systematically wiped out by the bigger scale threat of organised crime). Despite the suffering he inflicts upon her, Rose clings to the hope that she has found someone who loves her – the film hints that she has a violent father at home and is bullied at work – and is willing to endure anything, even the discovery that she is living with a killer, in the hope of one day finding peace. The masochistic nature of her relationship with Pinkie ties into her religious belief, with Joffe drawing a clear link between her subservience and the suffering that must be survived in the physical world in order to enjoy the fruits of heaven in the afterlife.
They’re fascinatingly drawn characters and Riseborough in particular flourishes, giving the first truly great performance of the year by making Rose at once sympathetic and despicable, presenting her to the audience in much the same way as Sam Riley’s psychotic Pinkie. Despite obviously being older than the character’s purported teenage years, Riley effectively paints Pinkie’s with self-loathing and desire to hurt the world as it hurt him (his ‘growth’ from shaky young thug to violent killer symbolised by the scar that gets carved into his face), even if he only uses one facial expression throughout – albeit a believeably scary one. It’s a shame that the supporting roles feel so single-note in comparison: Helen Mirren, making her now-mandatory appearance in a top-end British production, does moving work as the crusading Ida, desperate to recover Rose from the abyss that Pinkie is pulling her into, but the character is never any deeper than than that short description. John Hurt appears in an unfulfilling role as Ida’s supportive friend, serving no other purpose than as a counter-point to show what a strong and determined woman Ida is. The less said the better about Colleoni, the caricature of a crime boss played with unbearable hamminess by Andy Serkis, who undermines the film’s integrity with every appearance.
Unfortunately, there are just enough such missteps to prevent the film from achieving its full potential. Felix Erskine’s score is scattershot in its construction, seemingly assembled from a number of influential film themes from the period that give it the uncomfortable qualities of being both distinctive but with an undercurrent of unplaceable familiarity. Joffe’s visuals are frequently striking, but have a similar tendency to come across as over-stylised and stage-managed. When Pinkie’s bike pulls out into a parade of moped-driving mods, it’s a snazzy image which rings false, breaking the reality of the film and pushing the otherwise fairly underplayed ’60s iconography into kitsch. The same goes for a shot of Rose praying in church, lit from above with a Virgin Mary scarf wrapped around her head, which is painfully on the nose in its symbolic intent.
But the one unforgivable sin comes in the final scene, when Joffe pays his sole act of deference to the Boulting Brothers’ film by replicating their cop-out ending. It’s made worse by the fact that the Boultings at least gave some justification for what happens at the end of their film, where Joffe leaves it to chance – or perhaps divine intervention? In either case, it almost fatally cripples the film’s themes that all our delusions have to end eventually and waters down a moment that could have been incredibly powerful (as the realisation dawned on the audience in my cinema of what could be about to happen, there was an audible intake of breath, followed by groans when Joffe dropped the ball for a more palatable conclusion) had it for once stuck to Greene’s original template. The final line of the novel is one of the most most horrifying in all of literature, a damning answer to its every question about fate and humanity: ‘She walked rapidly in the thin June sunshine towards the worst horror of all.’ As Pinkie says, in equating the pier’s famous confectionery with human nature. “Bite all the way to the bottom and you’ll still read Brighton.” For all its merits up until the end, Joffe’s film falls apart on its inability to see the truth behind its own delusions.
Overall Score: 6.95 – Okay (6s are just okay. These movies usually have many flaws, didn’t try to do anything special, or were poorly executed. Some will still love 6s, but most prefer to just rent them. Watch more trailers and read more reviews before you decide)