‘Brighton Rock’ – a less-than-stellar adaptation

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Brighton Rock

Directed by Rowan Joffe

United Kingdom, 2010 

No stranger to adaptations, Graham Greene has seen nearly 20 of his novels take their turn on the big-screen.  Some (The End of the Affair in 1955, 1969, and 1999 and A Gun for Hire in 1961, 1972, and 1991) have turned up multiple times.  The latest, Brighton Rock, directed by Rowan Joffe who is more famous for his screenplays (The American, 28 Weeks Later) than his behind-the-camera skills marks the second time that the gangster-tale of Pinkie Brown gets the cinematic treatment.

In 1947 Richard Attenborough played the lead role with particular menace in a production headed by John Boulting.  The shadowy noir remained faithful to the plot of the Greene novel, but removed much of the deeper religious complexities, settling for above-average genre film rather than the psychological drama the book favors. 

The 2011 production features Sam Riley, best known for his portrayal of Ian Curtis in the Joy Division-biopic Control, in the lead role, and a noteworthy supporting cast of Andrea Riseborough, Helen Mirren and John Hurt.

Riley’s Pinkie Brown is a young gangster intent on rising to the top whose plight seems to be less for money than respect.  In his way is the monetarily successful mobster Colleoni (Any Serkis). When Pinkie murderously takes revenge on Colleoni’s gang for an accidental killing he is forced by the older member’s of his own mob to find and “take care of” the lone witness – a young waitress named Rose (Riseborough).  Instead of using simple old-world threatening tactics, Pinkie flirts with the girl.  His subsequent relationship with her oscillates between young, angst-ridden love and potential danger.  Leading the investigation into the crime is less the police than Rose’s boss and mother-type Ida (Mirren) and her reluctant male companion Phil Corkery (Hurt).

Joffe, who also penned the adaptation, updates the setting from Greene’s original 1940s-Brighton to the culture-clashes of the 1960s with moderate success.  Fights between Mods and Rockers on the Brighton beaches replace much of the police-driven suspense from the novel and lend thematic credence to Pinkie’s personal crisis: both he and England are violently evolving together.

However, Joffe’s 1960s-vision falters most of the time.  Colleoni’s lair, for example, is an ill-conceived over-white hotel that would suit Andy Warhol more than the effeminate mobster it houses.  The set pieces and Colleoni himself are cartoonish and unintentionally comedic, both of which really detract from their being a world attractive to a thug like Pinkie.

There is an attempt to work Greene’s famous religious sensibilities into the film, but these efforts too fall flat.  Brief conversations between Pinkie and Rose about Catholicism, a few shots of the two praying, and an ending that wants to point towards a transcendent miracle are not enough.  As it stands, these few elements are hurriedly placed and never quite latch on to the over-arching narrative.  They feel tacked on.  The final image of a cross-onscreen, itself a reference to the 1947 film, the script for which Greene himself wrote, fails to be of substance and capture the Bresson-ian feel that Joffe intends.

An underdeveloped supporting cast, rushed climax and uneven direction contribute to a less-than-stellar adaptation. 

– Neal Dhand

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