Despite its status as a literary classic, Brighton Rock fails to translate to the screen as either a successful adaptation or drama. An incredibly talented cast is hampered by a lifeless script that never gets beyond the surface of these tragic characters.
Graham Greene’s 1938 novel “Brighton Rock” began, in the words of the author, “as a detective story and continued, I am sometimes tempted to think, as an error of judgement”. Adaptations have been attempted over the years, most notably John Boulting ‘s 1947 film, released to US audiences as Young Scarface! Named after the confectionary sold in seaside resorts in the UK, the allegorical tale has since seen the light of day as a radio play and an unsuccessful musical from the late John Barry and lyricist Don Black. Screenwriter Rowan Joffé, best known for 28 Weeks Later and The American, makes his directorial feature debut with this latest reworking of the tale.
When the innocent Rose (Andrea Riseborough, Never Let Me Go) inadvertently comes in contact with evidence of a revenge killing committed by Pinkie (Sam Riley, Control). Pinkie seduces Rose to find out how much she knows about the killing, and to ensure that she is not going to go to the police. Yet an unconventional love story develops, with each party unsure of how far they can trust the other.
Greene’s deceptively simple narrative, of crooks on the shores of Brighton, is interwoven with a Catholic subtext, and a metaphorical take on the human condition in its original form. Joffé’s film, based on his own adapted screenplay, shifts the tale from the 1930s to 1964, during a time when clashes between Mods and Rockers was causing moral panic amongst the good citizens of Blighty. In doing so, Joffé attempts to create a kind of modern noir, filled with the misty greys and blues of 1960s England and an oppressive score from Martin Phipps (Small Island). Beginning with the familiar chase to the pier and Ida (Helen Mirren, RED) in the pub, almost line-for-line from Greene’s novel, there is a sense that Joffé’s Brighton Rock is going to add very little to the perpetually evolving story. Indeed, Joffé’s film – filled with mysterious cinematography of John Mathieson (Robin Hood) – adds about 20 minutes to the running time of Boulting’s earlier film, but still manages to lose even more of the subtext of the novel in the process. Pinkie and Rose are merely window dressing for an inevitability of events in this version of the tale.
Joffé’s scripts have always managed to keep the audience at arm’s length to a certain extent, with the sterile nature of the 28 Weeks Later world giving way to the ultimate stand-offish character in George Clooney’s The American. With Pinkie and Rose, we never get beyond the surface. They certainly look, and perhaps even sound, the part: Riley looks every bit as striking as he did portraying Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s biopic Control, with Roseborough every bit the clueless homespun beauty that she should be. Yet the rest of the film, and its characters (with the possibly exceptions of John Hurt and Sean Harris, as the ill-fated Hale) are mere imitations of a bygone era, with little perspective added by this 21st century adaptation. Transplanting the events of the book to the 1960s doesn’t seem to have been done with any concern other than a stylistic liberty being taken, and it leaves the characters as hollow anachronisms, wandering the foggy corridors of Brighton as if they were ghosts. Perhaps the biggest crime of this film is that it robs us (and Rose) of the cruelty of the original ending, which we won’t spoil here, but the softening of the final blow to Rose is only cruel to the audience.
Brighton Rock opened in cinemas around Australia on 14 April 2011 from Madman Entertainment.