Rowan Joffé updates the 40’s classic Brighton Rock to 60’s angst and proto-feminism, complete with rioting mods and rockers, youth counter-culture with scooters set against old-school gangsters and a decaying Brighton so filthy you want to slash your own throat…
Competing against the Boultings’ 1947 classic is a big ask, updating to the 1960’s an even bigger ask. Keeping Graham Greene’s obsessive Catholic guilt, throwing in an even bigger dollop of crime and punishment while levering in a slice of social historical commentary (youth violence) just about breaks it.
30-year old Sam Reilly convinces as still-adolescent lost-boy Pinky Brown, taking a while to find his murderous feet after the death of his father-figure gang-boss. Reilly dresses the part in Kray hair cut and suit but is clearly the outsider, Jimmy Porter with a switch-blade. Andy Serkis’ urbane gangster (‘Colleoni’? Really?) even describes Pinky as an ‘angry young man’ of the period. Much of his childhood Catholicism hangs on the certainty that his is already damned, so there is no redeeming this lost soul. It’s a shame, as Pinky loses dimensions because of it, downgraded to ‘villain in training’ all the way through.
In 60’s Britain, murder is still a capital crime and a wife cannot be compelled to give evidence against a husband, so Pinky pursues Rose (the witness who didn’t actually witness anything).
What takes more explaining is why Andrea Risborough’s waitress Rose falls so completely for him. After her revulsion at charming gangster Hale, she should take one look at the sullen, glowering Reilly and know he’s at best a dangerous boy and at worst a complete nut-job. But treated badly at home by an uncaring father and convinced of the grace of God in everyone, Catholic Rose keeps her promises while looking for a better life, even as gangster Pinky’s moll. Risborough is still a rising star (her TV work is exemplary) and can look convincingly eighteen at times; she plays a vast emotional range, finding defiance amid the tragedy of it all.
Dame Helen Mirren gets to promote Ida Arnold, a former good-time girl, to avenging angel of justice. Having failed the murdered ‘gentleman friend’ Hale, she sets herself the task of bringing Pinky to justice and saving the innocent Rose. John Hurt puts in a turn as the ageing bookie and the two of them together are so dominant on screen they threaten to unbalance the whole film.
Much of Graham Greene’s moral fable of Catholic guilt is trimmed in the adaptation; like the Boultings’ original, we get a gangland thriller with Catholic agony as an afterthought.
Rowan Joffé, with his best director Bafta for TV drama, writing credits for 28 Weeks Later and Last Resort, attacks Brighton Rock with daring and bravura and a mixture of styles. Strong remnants of 40’s Brit-noir clash with stark 60’s realism and an almost operatic final act of melodrama. Rose in the convent shelter for fallen women is a cliche too far and the final scene with the record player is pure 1947 Boultings’ original. A stylish faux-historical TV gangland drama for those who like that kind of thing. SC
Production year: 2010
Cert (UK): 15
Runtime: 111 mins
Directors: Rowan Joffe
Writer: Rowan Joffe adapting Graham Greene
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Andy Serkis, Dame Helen Mirren, Helen Mirren, John Hurt, Phil Davis, Sam Riley