Adapter and director Rowan Joffe’s remake of Brighton Rock is stylish but, ultimately, one questions its point. Relocating the post-war setting of John Boulting’s 1947 version to the 1960s adds little apart from the opportunity to give the violent, small-town hoodlum Pinkie a fishtail parka and a scooter. An unintended consequence, however, is that it makes both his Catholicism, and that of the naive Rose who he marries to prevent from testifying against him, an anachronism.
Joffe, in an interview in the Guardian, explained his decision, “We’re making Brighton Rock as contemporary as we possibly can because the story feels ‘modern’. It’s too alive, too vibrant and too relevant to be contained in the late 1930s.” A worthy enough aim, except for the implicit assumption that the audience, unlike Joffe, will be unable to recognise relevancy unless it’s given a stylish makeover. It may also be news for Joffe that the 1960s are ancient history for most cinema-goers – and not only those who claim that not remembering is a sign they were there in the first place.
It’s not all bad though and the film does have some redeeming features. Here’s Matthew Turner in ViewLondon, ‘The film starts brilliantly, with a gripping opening scene, atmospheric photography by John Mathieson, gorgeous production design work and a terrific score from Martin Phipps. However, shortly after Hale’s murder, it completely runs out of steam and collapses under the weight of a confused, directionless script and ill-defined characters’.
To be fair, I thought Sam Riley made a decent stab at Pinkie. I wasn’t completely convinced by Andrea Riseborough as Rose, but I’ve now seen her in Made in Dagenham, followed by Never Let Me Go a few days before Brighton Rock, and failed to recognise her each time (a tribute to her acting rather than my lack of perception I hope). Unfortunately, though, I never believed in their relationship. And other characters were even less successful. Andy Serkis as Colleoni, the rival gang leader, was painfully laboured with speech patterns that made me want to slap him. While Helen Mirren as Ida, the blowsy broad determined to bring Pinkie to justice, and John Hurt, as her bookie friend Phil Corkey, both gave cold, brittle performances that veered perilously close to caricature.
The key to updating anything is to respect its roots. The fact that words such as ‘blowsy’ or ‘hoodlum’ – lovely, old-fashioned words – have crept into most reviews provides one key. Somehow, this remake’s heart wasn’t quite in the right place. Pete Postlethwaite (the original choice to play Corkey) and someone like Imelda Staunton for Ida might have struck the right note, bringing a genuineness and warmth to the roles that made us care what happened to them.
I’m also disappointed that Joffe didn’t take the chance to return to the ending from the book, rather than the one Greene wrote for the film. Or, given that the Catholicism at the heart of the plot is now difficult to understand, he didn’t confront the difficulty head on and explore the concepts of innocence and guilt.
I remember my own sense of surprise, almost shock, when a catholic priest friend stated that in an affair with a married man a single woman, having not broken any vows, had nothing to answer for. (Any guilt she therefore chose to feel was down to an unconscious desire to play the scarlet woman!) Such a clear-cut view of right and wrong challenged my more woolly C of E principles, but also left me questioning which of us was in fact more liberal.
It was any such challenging of assumptions that Brighton Rock failed to provide. I might have accused it of being muddled in its intentions, if I knew what those intentions were. Sadly, however, I’m not sure it had any, other than piggybacking on the style of the 1960s.