First published on Snipe for London Film Festival 2010 //
Director Rowan Joffe
The Surprise Film at previous London Film Festivals has ensured its hot ticket status, with big films making it worthy of the hype. In 2007 they gave us the Coen brothers’ adaptation of the bleak Cormac McCarthy novel No Country For Old Men. In 2008 it was the treat of Mickey Rourke as The Wrestler. And last year it was Capitalism: A Love Story. All right. That was a bit of step down but it wasn’t awful, just disappointing.
This year’s surprise was Brighton Rock, another adaptation of the much-celebrated Graham Greene novel, scripted and directed by The American’s Rowan Joffe, and updated to 1964 (the year in which the death penalty by hanging was abolished).
You can see the thinking behind such a choice: a British film, with an up-and-coming writer/director, funded by the BBC with the UK Film Council. Three cheers. Nevertheless, there’s a feeling caught somewhere between disheartening and hopeful when that ‘BBC Films’ title glows up on the screen.
The story follows doomed antihero Pinkie Brown (Riley), a young thug making his way in Brighton’s gangland underbelly and, after witnessing the murder of his mob boss in a chilling opening scene, charts his subsequent rise through the ranks. As he plots revenge on the man who knifed his chief, Pinkie falls ever deeper into the criminal underworld of the south, a world he is all too pleased to be a part of. He follows his soon-to-be victim, the hoodlum Hale (Harris), played by the only actor to have portrayed Ian Curtis (in 24 Hour Party People, 2002) other than Riley himself.
He takes cold vengeance under the pier, not knowing the kind of grief that will follow, unwittingly initiating warfare against the Colleoni (Serkis) clan. Pinkie is forced to cover his tracks and take care of any witnesses, one of which happens to be mousey tea waitress, Rose (Riseborough). It’s never made clear why he doesn’t kill her, considering he has ruthlessly murdered before and seems happy to do it otherwise. He ends up marrying her, something to do with a wife not having to testify against her husband, even though he hates her. This is one of the many clever set-pieces in which Pinkie reveals all to the audience, while he records an LP for Rose in a booth on the pier, while she waits outside watching him through the soundproof glass.
Then it all gets even worse for Pinkie and Rose.
Greene’s story is one told with a polished, confident filmic language often effusive in terms of its visuals, comparable to a novel where style has usurped substance: it is made up almost entirely of set-pieces, choreographed down to a tee and too rigid to actually tell the story without drawing attention to itself, in its style and in its trite script. Set pieces are linked together with clumpy exposition, laughable one-liners and half-hearted performances from all but the lead. The supporting cast, made up of big names like Helen Mirren, John Hurt and Andy Serkis, is decidedly weak and uninspired, giving the film an overall feeling of turgidity. We can see what they’re trying to do stylistically, reproducing elements of dense alienation synonymous with film-noir, a reference to the original, but it fails in any sense of exploring the amoral titular Catholics, Pinkie and Rose.
After an impressive turn in Corbijn’s Control, Riley has found it hard to emulate the intensity that the role of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis gave him in 2007. And he struggles here, and mostly because of his put-on voice that is hard to ignore, kind of like Christian Bale’s Batman. But at least Batman’s growl served a purpose. There seems to be no reason for the gremlin voice which, when combined with some of the shocking dialogue, is cringe worthy, with Riley sounding like something that crawled out from under the pier. But apart from the voice, Riley is watchable in a nuanced and often subtle performance, where a slight curl of the lip or a twitch, a clenched jaw or snarl, manage to give away what Pinkie is thinking.
But the rest of the acting, particularly from Helen Mirren and the other lead, Rose (Riseborough), is self-consciously melodramatic and so theatrically over-done that it often feels like we’re watching a moneyed version of the next flabby primetime drama the BBC is haemorrhaging.
The script is littered with some brutal lines from a Joffe who managed restraint in The American but lets loose here with lines like, “I’m a woman that’s afraid of nothing. Except the atom bomb of course” because yes, apart from the mods and the rockers, we nearly forgot we’re in the 60s. Or there’s: “You’re good and I’m bad. We were made for each other” which might actually be Greene’s line, but they could have excised that in the translation. Unfortunately there are even some hard-
to-not-chuckle-at lines concerning the stick of Brighton rock which, although it’s supposed to be a symbol of human nature, it actually turns out to be a bit of a larf.
To be fair, Joffe has managed a few redeeming shots, particularly the last shot of a crucifix that goes out of focus. Rose believes Pinkie’s love for her is real, even when she listens to the LP after suffering a kind of breakdown. The needle skips when it hits a scratch and we don’t know if Rose ever hears the truth recorded on the vinyl. The shot illuminates Rose in her delusion and reveals something about her blind faith. Fundamentally, this is a film about the new generation clashing with the old, symbolised by its temporal setting, with new values confronting old ones. But on the whole, the scenes are set up in such a way that too blatantly screams out: ‘Look at us! We’re beautiful!’ Managing to avoid any subtlety that might let the audience work any allusion out for themselves.
But perhaps Brighton Rock’s biggest crime is that we actually can’t care about these characters or what happens to them. The film is riddled with clichés, bits of characters transplanted straight out of other films and reassembled into this one, ultimately failing to rise above its appearance of a nine o’ clock BBC drama with all of its indigestible dialogue.
Also published on: Spike Magazine