Sometimes one can admire a film without truly liking it; that’s how I feel about the ambitious British remake of Brighton Rock. Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, first filmed in the late 1940s, has been cleverly reworked to take place in 1964, at the time of the “mods and rockers” riots in Brighton, signifying a time of change in England. That is just one of many clever moves by writer-director Rowan Joffe, who is able to explore some of the seamier aspects of the novel that censorship (and matters of taste) made impossible in 1947.
One of the new movie’s great strengths is its—
—casting. Relative newcomer Sam Riley plays Pinkie, an amoral, ex-Catholic hoodlum who’s looking to take over a criminal gang, and Andrea Riseborough is Rose, a wide-eyed, innocent, devotedly Catholic waitress who falls, hopelessly, in love with him. Their behavior is often extreme, so it’s vital that you believe the actors in these roles, and you do. But Pinkie is a difficult, quixotic, and unlikable character whose violent, antisocial behavior is difficult to stomach.
Andy Serkis appears briefly, but effectively, as a genteel crime lord, and John Hurt is a welcome presence as a bookmaker squeezed by the rival gangs who want his protection money. But the brightest light is shone by Helen Mirren as Rose’s employer, a worldly woman who refuses to see an innocent girl sullied without standing up for her. She knows how to use her feminine wiles to their full advantage, and does—and Mirren’s performance can best be described in one word: delicious.
The period flavor is tangible, and the evocation of a seaside resort that’s about to give way to social upheaval suits Graham Greene’s story quite well. But make no mistake: these are sordid people in an unsavory atmosphere, so while it’s interesting to observe the characters and their actions, it’s also highly unpleasant. I revisited the 1947 film, adapted by Greene and Terence Rattigan, and directed by John Boulting, with memorable performances by Richard Attenborough (who originated the part on stage), Hermione Baddeley, and Carol Marsh, to compare. It’s a good “Brit noir,” hampered by censorship restrictions of the time but still impressively seedy.
Joffe has been able to deepen and darken his character portraits; a scene involving Pinkie and Rose’s father is devastating and unforgettable. But this is “cold” material, hard to warm up to. That’s why I respect Brighton Rock, but I can’t quite say I enjoyed it.