Review: Brighton Rock

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The Pitch: Greene’s Pinkie gets some colour in his cheeks.

The Review: One might be forgiven for thinking, given the alarming regularity with which old classics get remade these days, that there is a shortage of original ideas among film-makers these days. Of course, if approached correctly there’s no reason why a second interpretation or adaptation of a work can’t be as artistically valid as the original, but a second bite at the cherry does make you hope that those involved have something new to bring to the material. The level of challenge does go up significantly when tackling not only a highly regarded piece of fiction, but also one that has already received an adaptation which been favoured and loved for decades. So to take on a second adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is either very brave or quite foolish; as it turns out, it’s probably been a little of both.

The adaptation itself isn’t slavish; the setting has been updated from the Thirties setting of both the novel and original film to a Sixties setting, which allows the various confrontations to be played out against the prominent backdrop of the Mods and Rockers and their various battles. The characters, though, haven’t changed too much, the central story still being that of young gangster Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley) and his increasing attempts to improve his own influence and to cover the tracks of his various misdemeanours. His main attempt to cover those tracks is to get close to Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a young waitress who unwittingly ends up with a crucial piece of evidence, and in Pinkie’s attempts to protect himself Rose ends up drawn both increasingly close to him and also deeper and deeper into his plans.

To a certain extent, the success of such an adaptation stands and falls on its casting, when such direct comparisons can be made to the original. This is where the first major problem presents itself, in that Sam Riley is no Richard Attenborough. Not only does Riley not have the youthfully innocent look that Attenborough had in the original, but also crucially fails to exude anything approaching the same air of menace. This is counterbalanced somewhat by the casting of Rose, and the up and coming Andrea Riseborough’s performance. Where Riley is one note and stuffy at times, Riseborough runs through a full range of emotions and manages to make her sympathetic and sycophantic character eminently believable. Elsewhere, it’s a very mixed bag; some of the big names such as John Hurt and Andy Serkis deliver their normal level and could do with more screen time, but Helen Mirren also feels oddly miscast and never quite captures the feeling being aimed for.

So, back to that question of what’s new. The Mods / Rockers setting is new, and indeed the look of the film is one of the best assets of Brighton Rock, the settings capturing the feel of the era, while allowing for variations of mood and making efficient use of both daylight and darkness. But thematically and conceptually, there’s not a great deal of fresh meat here; Rowan Joffe has contributed both script and direction and it’s by far the latter that’s his most useful contribution. The script has an effective, if slightly predictable, ending, but Greene’s original themes of Catholicism and morality are only paid lip service and get somewhat smothered, and the film has to work hard to convey even the simplest of the motivations as the plot develops. While there are some worthy moments, and Riseborough appears to be a star in the making, sadly this Brighton adaptation doesn’t rock as much as it should.

Why see it at the cinema: The Sixties setting is wonderfully evoked and some of the imagery is moodily effective. The most compelling reason by far, though, is Riseborough’s magnetic performance.

The Score: 6/10

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