Brighton Rock ***
Directed by: Rowan Joffe.
Written by: Rowan Joffe based on the novel by Graham Greene.
Starring: Sam Riley (Pinkie Brown), Andrea Riseborough (Rose), Helen Mirren (Ida), John Hurt (Phil Corkery), Philip Davis (Spicer), Nonso Anozie (Dallow), Craig Parkinson (Cubitt), Andy Serkis (Colleoni), Sean Harris (Hale), Geoff Bell (Kite), Steven Robertson (Crab).
Pinkie Brown is an irredeemable psychopath, and once you realize this, about half way through Brighton Rock, he becomes a far less interesting character than he was when the movie began. This is most likely why most movie psychos are supporting characters, and not their character arch is predetermined. Yet, even once Pinkie becomes less interesting as a character, Brighton Rock remains a stylistic treat, and the supporting characters are enough to make this a fascinating little neo-noir. Not as fascinating as the Graham Greene novel on which it is based, but fascinating nonetheless.
Written and directed by Rowan Joffe, Brighton Rock moves the action from the 1930s, to the early 1960s, I think to better show the moral decay in youth happening around that time. Pinkie is barely out of his teens, and already a low level gangster. When we first meet him, he’s frozen in fear as his father figure is murdered in front of him. He is assigned to “cut up” but not kill his murderer, to send a message to a rival gang. After screwing up the task once, he doesn’t screw it up again – but takes things too far, smashing the murderer’s head in with a rock, killing him. This is a problem because Pinkie’s boss Spicer (Mike Leigh regular Phillip Davis) was photographed with the victim, and the young woman he was trying to use as cover Rose (Andrea Riseborough) by one of those annoying photographers you see at all tourist traps. Pinkie needs to get that picture, and to do so, he needs the ticket Rose has. Thus begins a complicated relationship between Pinkie and Rose. She falls head over heels in love with him, even though she knows he is a murderer. He marries her, because a wife can’t be forced to testify against her husband. And the only one who seems interested in bringing Pinkie down is Ida (Helen Mirren), who called the much younger victim a “gentleman friend” of hers, and is also Rose’s employer, and doesn’t want to see anything happen to her.
The Graham Greene novel on which this film is based is much more complex than the movie. Greene, a Catholic, was making a point on morality when he wrote the novel. Pinkie and Rose are both Catholics, yet he is a psychopath and a murderer, and she tries to justify her love for him. Their morals, despite being Catholic, are questionable. Ida, who is not religious at all, is the most moral character in the story – obsessed with doing the right thing – not because of God or religion, but because of her own moral code. This is merely hinted at in the movie, which is disappointing, because it’s what I admired most about Greene’s novel.
So, taking out the theological element of Greene’s novel, what we are left with is a nasty little, highly stylized noir, and that’s good enough for me. Brighton is supposed to be a tourist trap, but how Joffe photographs it, with its dark foreboding skies, rundown, skuzzy looking boardwalk, their never ending wind, whose coldness you can almost feel, makes it look like the most depressing place to spend a holiday I can think of. This is one of the darkest, gloomiest movies of the year, and the visual look matches the subject matter.
The performances help a great deal as well. Sam Riley, so good in the under seen Control a few years ago, is cold and heartless as Pinkie. He evolves from the scared kid we see in those first few scenes, into the calculating psychopath pretty quickly in the movie – and to his credit, he never tries to take the edge off. He plays it as cold and cruel as he should. Andrea Riseborough is also quite good as Rose, who makes her character naïve, somewhat dim teenager in love. Somewhere inside, she has to know just how awful Pinkie is, but she cannot bring herself to admit to herself – not even in the sad scene that ends that movie, where we realize just how pathetic Rose is. Best of all is Helen Mirren, playing another one of her tough as nails women. She sees things more clearly than anyone else in the film, and knows precisely what she needs to do. Nice support is offered by Phillip Davis, all scared energy, Andy Serkis (without the aid of computer technology) as a slimy gangster and Nonso Anozie, a friend of Pinkie’s torn between his loyalty for him, and doing the right thing.
All told, Brighton Rock is not a great film. It doesn’t have the needed depth for that, because Rowan Joffe decided to make the movie simpler, more streamlined than the novel. And yet, on its own terms it works. It is a nasty little film – but an effective one.