Sunday, 6 February 2011

AFED #37: Brighton Rock (UK, 2010); Dir. Rowan Joffé


When I heard there was a fresh adaptation of Brighton Rock my first thought, probably like many others was, "Why?". The Boulting Bothers' original is one of British cinema's sacred texts; a dark, brooding film that dared to explore territory other work from the period baulked and retains its vitality after more than sixty years.

But it's ridiculous to be so precious. The original is still there regardless of whether the new rendition fails to match its standards and there's always the possibilty, however remote, it will either improve or at least bring a fresh perspective to some of the themes of Graham Greene's novel. 

So, having thrown caution to the wind, I entered the cinema with two questions. First, how would Sam Riley's depiction of the vicious young gangster Pinkie compare with Dickie Attenborough's career-making portrayal? Second, how would this version choose the interpret the most sadistic ending in all of English literature?

But there's a twist to writer-director Rowan Joffé's version that probably goes some way to explaining how an otherwise perfunctory remake found backing from the Film Council. While both the original novel and film had been set in the 1930's this version updates events to 1964 and the legendary mods and rockers confrontations on the Brighton seafront. Still, a cute gimmick doesn't win you kudos alone; Pinkie might get to wear a tight-fitting suit and ride a scooter but if anything Joffé only makes more of a rod for his own back.

Sam Riley, flush from the critical acclaim for his portrayal of Ian Curtis in Control, rises to the challenge of the central role. From the onset it's clear that his will be a more humanised, although by no means sympathetic, interpretation of the character than Attenborough's; there are hints of a curtailed childhood and an absent father.  In an early scene he's out-psyched and visibly terrified by rival mobster Hale (the ever excessive Sean Harris). Revenge swiftly follows, sparking the events that will propel the rest of the story.

Strictly speaking he's too old for the role, as is Andrea Riseborough as Rose, the naive young girl who knows too much whom Pinkie marries to ensure her silence, yet both perform well enough. It's their relationship that represents the (broken) heart of the story; Rose blinkered by love to Pinkie's true sentiments. Surprisingly Joffé doesn't attempt to do anything fresh with the ending, which effectively replicates that of the 1947 version.

The supporting roles are a who's who of British character actors, including John Hurt (as a bookie who falls foul of Pinkie) and the scenery-chewing Andy Serkis.  Helen Mirren, portraying Ida, the manageress of the tea rooms who seeks to expose Pinkie, isn't quite as blousy as Greene's heroine and might have been more interesting if Joffé had sought to emphasise more of the generational divide.

Indeed the big problem with this film is the director doesn't do enough to justify his remake; it's perfectly adequate as a period thriller and younger viewers might appreciate it coming to the story afresh. The trouble is that, judging from the audience when I went to see it, they're probably not going to bother. Still, this is just the kind of 'safe' product the British film industry seems to pride itself on these days.

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