It’s the Mods versus the Rockers in Rowan Joffe’s glossy update of Graham Greene’s canonical 1937 literary thriller Brighton Rock. Transposing the setting from pre-war England to the era of “teddy boys” on scooters, director Joffe graduates from BBC television movies to his first feature—an assured effort masking a lack of suspenseful drive and only scratching the surface of Greene’s ponderings on religious damnation and Catholic guilt. The film opens strongly with a shadowy murder – the light sparkling off a switchblade as it comes down in gray sheets of rain – but for all of its impeccable style, Brighton Rock ends up a thriller without bite and a variation on settings and themes explored at greater, satisfying length on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
A “Brighton rock” is one of those old fashioned hard candies with an image appearing in the middle no matter how much is eaten. Greene used the confection as a symbol for the inescapable depravity practiced by his young sociopath Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley) and his criminal ilk. Pinkie is an iconic figure of British literature formerly played with glaring intensity by Richard Attenborough in the first film adaptation back in 1947. Riley plays the role at a simmer with sneers borrowed from the Leonardo DiCaprio playbook, but is never quite malevolent enough to embody Greene’s complex misanthrope – he instead resembles a particularly snide Ben Sherman model.
Pinkie’s downfall is set in motion after he shows up too late to save a fellow gang member in that first scene, though he remembers the face of the man responsible. He will later bludgeon his target Fred Hale with a stone under the Brighton resort boardwalk but not before a compromising photo of the victim and his killers is left in the possession of Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a naive waitress working at the restaurant of Ida (Helen Mirren) – Hale’s former lover now bent on bringing the culprits to justice. Joffe convolutes the original plot by putting the characters in closer relationship proximity with neat and tidy motives – bypassing Greene’s debates with Catholic dogma, Pinkie’s sexual repulsion, and Ida’s ideological motivations to simplify the story with rote thriller tactics.
Manipulating a romance with Rose all the way to marriage so that she can’t testify against him, Pinkie relinquishes any vestige of audience sympathy – he appears to us weak and smarmy especially in a pivotal scene when he makes a record of his voice declaring how much he loathes Rose as she beams at him from outside the recording booth. By the time the melodramatic climax occurs with a suicide pact at the edge of a windy bluff, Brighton Rock struggles to make us care about any of the participants. Mirren continues her late career of hard-ass roles but has little to do but present the “eye for an eye” revenge creed as a just and religiously-approved solution in opposition to Rose’s blind devotion to a husband she suspects of unspeakable acts.
By changing the time period, Joffe has raised the ire of many a British film critic who hold the text sacred. I am not in that camp and would be fine with the Quadrophenia bits if only the filmmakers had explored the youth revolt of the 1960s and had given more thought to Rose’s position as a timid young woman right at the cusp of feminism and the sexual revolution. Greene did not write a perfect story, but this version of Brighton Rock changes only a few negligible details without getting to the heart of the matter.