Brighton Rock Review
Twenty or so years ago, Graham Greene was widely considered the greatest living British writer, but interest in his writing seems to have greatly declined in the years since his death in 1991, and those novels of international espionage and exotic affairs with their characters wracked by Catholic guilt seem now somewhat dated in their outlook, or at least inextricably tied to a particular historical period. The cinema however, which in the past has served Greene’s work well in adaptations of The End of the Affair and particularly in Carol Reed’s adaptations of The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, has been rather more favourably inclined towards Greene’s themes. Even relatively recent adaptations of The End of the Affair (1999) and The Quiet American (2002) however were not entirely able to bring his moral dilemmas into a modern context, and similarly this new adaptation of Brighton Rock, although taken out of its original pre-war gangland setting, is only made to fit in the context of the gang fights between mods and rockers at the seaside resort town thirty years later in the 1960s.
Although I neglected to include it in earlier list of successful translations of Graham Greene’s work to the screen, The Boulting Brother’s 1947 version of Brighton Rock – scripted by Greene himself with Terence Rattigan – is, for the time it was made and with all its necessary flaws in its compression of the storyline, one of the finest, with a young Richard Attenborough suitably demonic in the form of Pinkie Brown, a small-time gangster who is finding his mob is being gradually squeezed out of the protection racket in Brighton by a bigger, better organised crime syndicate. Even for the time it was made, the film manages to tap into the nasty streak of bitterness that runs through the story like the name of the town through the stick of rock that gives it its title. The question that arises then, as it does when any film or book is readapted to the screen, is why bother unless you can update the themes or bring a new dimension to the work.
In some cases, a remake is just a slightly more valid method of colourising an old black-and-white classic or an opportunity to cash in on a successful brand name, but in the case of Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock, it would seem that every effort has been made to get back to the source novel and include all those crucial elements missing from the first full-length adaptation that collectively add up to a much more convincing and complex account of the social, ethical and moral questions that are examined in the book and the weakness of human beings when confronted with them. For Sam Riley's Pinkie, an indoctrinated if not exactly a practising Catholic (again a seam that lies within like a stick of Brighton rock), that becomes a conflict between his own self-preservation and the eternal damnation of his immortal soul.
While it hard to imagine a modern day criminal being plagued with such concerns, the new adaptation does manage to make it work in the context of the sixties, when the death penalty is still in force and there is wider concern about the social order and the youth culture that has given rise to the kind of violence seen in the riots between the mods and rockers. The new Brighton Rock is also rather more successful in its giving more rounded portraits of the secondary characters (Andy Serkis’ mannered and superficial performance of gangster Mr Colleoni excepted), each of them essential in providing a real-world counterpoint and alternative to the twisted worldview of Pinkie Brown. A reworking that makes Ida Arnold the owner of the tea room where Rose works doesn’t work in favour of the necessary warm-hearted, cheery, optimistic, working-class, good-time-girl nature of the character, but a fine performance from Helen Mirren makes the most of the few lines where this attitude is retained.
In its place, the emphasis here is however more convincingly placed on Rose, (Andrea Riseborough), the tea-room maid who has been a witness to the moments leading up to the killing of Colleoni’s man Fred Hale (again, in a twist from the original novel, the killer of Pinkie’s gangland mentor and father-figure, Kite, but it’s one that works just as effectively). Less of a simple gullible innocent, there is more of a calculated self-delusion to this Rose, who takes the opportunity that Pinkie offers to escape from an unhappy home life and unexciting career, and is happy to take the money from Pinkie’s tin to buy a new dress for herself in her new life, as long as she can square everything up with her conscience by admitting it all to Pinkie. The potentially devastating revelation of Pinkie’s real feelings in a voice-recording at the conclusion that was neatly sidestepped in the Boutling Brother’s adaptation (one presumes that Greene himself had doubts about the unremitting bleakness of the original) is replicated here, but one gets the impression in this version that what she hears is just another aspect of Rose’s willing self-delusion rather than a convenient twist.
Brighton Rock has been heavily criticised in the press for having the audacity to deviate from the Boulting Brother’s version and for borrowing from it at the same time, but it’s not an inferior film. It is indeed hard for anyone fond of the original film not to have the first screen version playing out in one’s head as you watch Rowan Joffe’s remake, and the film does suffer in that respect, but in others, particularly in its attempt to more fully convey the rich complexity of Graham Greene’s novel, it works very well indeed. For anyone watching the film freshly without the baggage of its history however, this is a reasonably good version of Brighton Rock. It’s well-paced and purposeful, with a good script that is mindful of the deeper themes, and performances that are able to do justice to the characters. It’s far from a perfect Greene adaptation, but it does successfully show that the underlying questions in the author’s work have not dated as much as the political and social context around them.