Early on in Rowan Joffe’s directorial debut “Brighton Rock," adapted from the Graham Greene novel, sociopathic protagonist Pinkie Brown (“Control” star Sam Riley) desperately batters a man with a sizeable rock. He does so right underneath the oblivious vacationing crowds on the Brighton boardwalk (circa 1964). This duality is hammered home by a portentous soundtrack and crosscutting between the sounds of children’s laughter and the ragged breathing of the two men locked in mortal combat. Lucky for us, Joffe, a screenwriter with “28 Weeks Later” and “The American” to his name, keeps the film from slipping into self-serving grimness and delivers a smart, sharply acted adaptation.
This writer has not read the source material nor seen the 1947 adaptation, and while Joffe has supposedly offended some sensibilities by shifting the timeline from the 1930s to the 1960s, it certainly didn’t impact our viewing. Set amidst the frequently violent clashes between the Mods and the Rockers, Pinkie and his comrades prowl the streets armed with switchblades, which are put to use whenever they encounter opposing gangs of identical-looking trenchcoat-clad men. When Pinkie’s gang hunts down Fred Hale (Sean Harris) in retaliation for the accidental killing of a father figure Pinkie’d looked up to, they fall out of favor with Mr. Colleoni (Andy Serkis), a socialite gangster who prefers to run his business from the confines of a posh hotel.
Things aren't made any easier by a photo, snapped by a boardwalk photographer when Fred, on the run from Pinkie's gang and attempting to blend in, cozies up to Rose (Andrea Riseborough). The photo is taken at a crucial moment, capturing one of Pinkie’s men in the act of apprehending Fred. When Fred’s body turns up some time later, Rose then becomes a problem. Pinkie takes it upon himself to romance her while stepping up as the de-facto leader of his now-headless gang. Their odd relationship forms the crux of “Brighton Rock” – Pinkie clearly has trouble summoning anything more than the slightest attraction to the mousy Rose, yet plans to marry her, as, under the law of the time, a wife cannot testify against her husband.
Intrigued at first by Pinkie’s blunt manner, and then bearing the brunt of his temper (no doubt familiar to her from her relationship with her father which we understand from a single scene), Rose enters into the relationship coasting on blind idealism. The courtship progresses quickly and Pinkie has to work overtime in order to reign in the occasionally rebellious young woman – Riseborough gets a chance to shine in several scenes where she shakes off her affection for a brief moment, and forces Pinkie to reassert himself, and to lie again and again in hopes of convincing her to move on, and to marry him.
But when Dame Helen Mirren gets involved as Ida, the proprietor of the restaurant where Rose works but soon to play a more significant role, “Brighton Rock” falters, losing the balance between Pinkie’s struggle to get out from under Colleoni’s thumb, his marriage to Rose, and maintaining the wavering loyalty of his gang of three. It may have been more effective to focus simply on Pinkie and Rose, as the former grows crueler and more dismissive while the latter attempts to please him by playing at being a gangster’s moll. Mirren gets a good share of screen time and while she is undoubtedly a magnetic presence, her character exists more as a machination, a necessary force that turns gears in Rose’s head and sets a dramatic third act into motion.
“Brighton Rock” would have finished strong if not for the epilogue featuring Rose that ratchets up a key moment and then disappoints ever so slightly. The cast all turn in above-average performances and even at its most confounding, when the plot gets a bit jumbled and the film loses momentum, John Mathieson’s (“Gladiator”, “Kingdom of Heaven”) cinematography speaks volumes about the mental space the characters inhabit. Like Pinkie and Rose, "Brighton Rock" is frequently torn between what it wants to be, a romance, a thriller or a tragedy -- so it tries them all on, one by one, until it settles down somewhere in the middle. It's certainly no less interesting or engaging for it, but a little scattered. [B-]