FILM REVIEW: Brighton Rock (Culture NI, March 15th 2011)

There’s something about the sea. Or to be more precise, there’s something about England’s south coast.

From Losey’s The Damned (1963) to Roddam’s adaptation of The Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia (1979), the area has been depicted in cinema as an energetic and fraught battleground stalked by youths intent on living up to their feral tag.

The genesis for this violent reputation is Graham Greene’s classic 1938 novel Brighton Rock, which follows teenage antihero Pinkie Brown.

Ultimately a morality tale, the book was reflective of its time. It depicted the exploits of a razor-carrying, suit-wearing gang leader who could easily have been transferred to or from contemporary Glasgow – a city which was, when Greene’s novel first appeared, often compared to Chicago due to violent internecine feuding on the streets of its working-class and slum districts.

Rowan Joffe’s new film Brighton Rock (2011) – which stars Sam Riley and Dame Helen Mirren – is essentially a reimagining of both Greene’s novel and John Boulting’s 1947 film version starring Richard Attenborough, which has come to be regarded as a classic.

Joffe’s 21st century remake brings the social context forward some 30 years to 1964. It is an era in which ‘mods’ and ‘rockers’ fought pitched battles in seaside towns across the south coast of England, much to the dismay of a frightened parent generation who were still reeling from the horrors of the Blitz.

This ‘moral panic’ – arguably the first of its kind in Great Britain – provides, on paper at least, a tantalising backdrop to Joffe’s retelling. He succeeds in demonstrating that the central issues Greene wrote about (religion, social responsibility, comradeship) can pervade any social setting at any given time in history. However, rather frustratingly, the style of his film rather outweighs the substance.

Throughout Sam Riley is trapped in a permanent James Cagney impression. Riley can do brooding well – as was demonstrated when he took on the role of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in Control (2007) – but there is something maddeningly soulless about his acting here. His melodramatic homage to early gangster flicks begins to grate as the film develops.

We are also asked to believe that Rose (Andrea Riseborough) is so lacking in confidence that she would naively surrender her relative independence as a single woman in the 1960s to give unswerving loyalty to a character who is played without even a hint of mischievous charm.

A supporting cast of fine British actors – Mirren, John Hurt, Phil Davis and Andy Serkis – are rotated without ever being allowed to develop. It constantly feels like Joffe is unwittingly diminishing the substance of Greene’s characters by paying more attention to the visual aspect of the film, which, to give him his dues, is often remarkable.

From the vibrant but disarmingly melancholy Brighton pier to the tatty vestiges of a declining British Empire as symbolised by the stuffed away Union Jacks in Pinkie’s bedsit, Joffe visually depicts the fragmentation of England’s working-class.

Sadly, however, these are all we are left with – images. Had Joffe managed to marry content and character, perhaps the result might have been an intriguing reinvention of an enduring tale. Sadly, that is not the case.

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