'Brighton Rock' then and now

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Wally Hammond compares Rowan Joffe's new 'Brighton Rock' movie with the 1947 original and the source novel by Graham Greene

Who would you rate as the greatest villain in British cinema? Christopher Lee’s count in ‘Dracula’? Alex in ‘A Clockwork Orange’? Begbie in ‘Trainspotting’? They’re all iconically creepy, but few compare with Richard Attenborough’s deadly duo: the serial killer John Christie in 1971’s ‘10 Rillington Place’ and the psychopathic razor-boy Pinkie Brown, who marauds 1930s Kemp Town in 1947’s ‘Brighton Rock’.

Well, good news: Pinkie’s back! Sam Riley plays the murderer in writer Rowan Joffe’s directing debut, an £8 million ‘remix’ of the classic noir tale, the ’40s version of which was adapted by Graham Greene and Terence Rattigan from Greene’s own 1938 novel. According to Riley, who is best known for playing Ian Curtis in ‘Control’, his Pinkie is more mean, violent, religiously confused and sexually anxious. Arguably, he’s prettier, too.

Directors as diverse as the Hughes brothers and Scorsese are said to have tried and failed to remake John Boulting’s walk with love and death through the ‘dark alleyways and festering slums’ of Greene’s pre-war Brighton. However, Joffe, the writer of ‘The American’ and ‘Last Resort’, is not the fool rushing in where angels fear to tread.

Widespread consensus says, probably rightly, that a contemporary version of Greene’s book wouldn’t work, not least because of Pinkie’s Catholic obsession with hell and the innocence of Pinkie’s waitress girlfriend Rose, whom he marries so that she can’t testify against him. But these days sex and violence are more palatable, and both were strong features of the novel which were down-played in the first film – albeit insufficiently to satisfy the US censors who delayed its release for four years.

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Mindful of Philip Larkin’s dictum that ‘Sexual intercourse began in 1963’, Joffe sets his version in the mid-1960s – in one scene Parka-ed, Vespa-ed Mods are seen fighting rockers across the Pier front in a re-enactment of the 1964 Brighton riots. There’s a touching – and symbolic – scene in which dowdy Rose dresses herself in a Mary Quant-style mini to impress Pinkie, following what has been a violent and unromantic baptism in marital sex. In 1964 the times were a-changing, but the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act of 1965 hadn’t yet been passed – so the threat of eternal hell still resonates powerfully with Pinkie.

By 1964 the modern woman hasn’t arrived, but she’s on her way. There are traces of her in Helen Mirren’s excellent, assertive, sexually confident Ida, with her bra showing through her blouse, who in this version is not a barfly gossip but the ‘tart that runs Snows’’, the silver-service cafeteria where Rose waits tables. ‘Run along, Phil!,’ Ida commands her bookie mate Mr Corkery (John Hurt), interrogating big boss Colleoni (Andy Serkis) in the intimidating glitz of the Cosmopolitan Hotel: ‘This is women’s work!’ She represents a sort of feminist take on the supposedly sexist writer’s novel.

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Greene’s book took great interest in the milieu of his characters, an element Joffe is happy to exploit. Café-nostalgics will go a bundle on ‘Brighton Rock’: characters are always sipping cuppas on ’50s formica tabletops. The décor, set-design and (often Eastbourne-based) location work is one of the glories of this new ‘Brighton Rock’, cohabiting the old with the new. The talent cinematographer John Mathieson showed for desaturated seediness in ‘Love Is the Devil’ he brings to the peeling, rented rooms inhabited by Spicer (Phil Davis), Dallow (Nonso Anozie) and the other lowlife gang members over whom Pinkie has taken control. Interestingly, Nelson Place – in the book, the evil-nurturing, soon-to-be-pulled slum where Rose lives with the father who’s prepared to sell her for £150 – is now set-dressed as a warzone council block straight out of Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’.

So what is this new version? A Brit gangster flick? A hard-boiled period neo-noir? A psychological or detective thriller? An entertainment? There are elements of all four, but Joffe has suggested he is aiming for something more – romantic tragedy. He has taken the references to Rose’s sainthood at the end of Greene’s novel, the grandeur of her suffering, and chosen to flesh out her character. In that sense, this ‘Brighton Rock’ is Rose’s story, not Pinkie’s and that gives it a specific emotional charge. Andrea Riseborough gives it her all as Rose in a tough role: at first, she is hesitant and awkward, not innocent like Carol Marsh in the 1947 film, but as the film unfolds she achieves a notable pathos, if not quite the tragic grandeur Joffe is hoping for.

All in all, this new ‘Brighton Rock’ is a decent reimagining, lightened a little by some cameos (I cherish Andy Serkis’s Corleoni, spouting ‘restless youth: the ravaged and disrupted territory between the two eternities!’ as he spins a spoon in boredom), gentle anachronisms (Anozie’s Dallow uses the lingo of modern London) and casting liberties (Riley may be well preserved but, at 30, stripped of clothes, he doesn’t look 17). The film might not be an instant ‘classic’, but it’s an impressive – and surprisingly enjoyable – debut.



Read our review of 'Brighton Rock' here

Author: Wally Hammond



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