Here’s a pull quote for you: Brighton Rock left me stunned. More so than any other film at the back end of 2010, it caused my jaw to drop. And I don’t mean that in the positive sense.
Adapted from Graham Greene’s source novel, and lagging 60-odd years behind the first film version, co-written by the author himself and starring Richard Attenborough, William Hartnell and Hermione Baddeley, this new take is the directorial debut of writer, Rowan Joffé. The result is one of those mind-bending, flabbergasting disasters that come along far too rarely.
Brighton Rock couldn’t be based on a more melodramatic plot, as Pinkie (Sam Riley), a young, ambitious gangster, decides to marry Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a local waitress who happens to be a material witness to one of his murders. In order to keep her silent, he cons the girl with false romance, and in the process unearths all sorts of Catholic forms of guilt and sin.
However, while its predecessor had a starched, yet dignified quality, mixing stiff upper lip Britishness with its own spin on the then-contemporary style of urban film noir, Joffé’s take doesn’t dare toy with restraint, inflating the melodramatic elements to gigantic proportions. .
At first, however, there’s a stirring of something promising, in an impressive opening sequence where a blood-red phone box stands out against thick fog, as a man picks up the telephone to the foreboding soundtrack of dolorous bass and crashing waves.
But while John Mathieson’s (Gladiator, Phantom Of The Opera) moody cinematography recalls the depraved shadows of The Third Man, the fog soon clears to give way to what is a radical, and radically unwise resetting.
The action is moved to the 1960s in a quite crassly calculated move, to chime with the town’s iconic connections with youth culture and the conflict between mods and rockers, as well as to provide the costume and production design departments with a distinctive aesthetic on which to spend their budget.
The film never satisfactorily reconciles the story with this new setting, leaving this new context of faded glory, generational upheaval, and kitchen-sink throwbacks feeling a little irrelevant. As Pinkie romps through the criminal underworld, masterminding his ascent, Joffé crafts a background which, quite bafflingly, attempts to be more operatic than The Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia.
It’s a stylistic goal best witnessed in a horrifically overblown sequence, where Martin Phipps’ choral score rises to a crescendo just as the protagonist wheels his moped into a veritable fleet of Vespas, giving the impression that the apocalypse itself is occurring, right on Brighton Pier.
With his script for Anton Corbijn’s euro-thriller, The American, Joffé assembled a checklist of genre clichés, yet still attempted to subvert audience expectation. His work on Brighton Rock suggests this was a fluke, as his directorial debut is pure pastiche, a monster of warped hyper-realism.
To his credit, Brighton Rock isn’t the most consistent of properties, as even the 1947 film never comfortably nailed its religious tones and crime plotting, but where its minimal grace was gently compelling, Joffé’s mandate was clearly ‘go big’.
From the hackneyed dialogue, stifling style and overworked direction, there’s little space for the characters to breathe. Riley is a robotic facsimile of Attenborough’s precedent (less ‘Young Scarface’, more ‘Sussex Terminator’), and Riseborough makes the most of a wholly pathetic lead role, but the supporting cast, filled by high quality talent such as Helen Mirren, John Hurt and Andy Serkis, are picture postcard caricatures come to life.
Lacking in subtlety, the film pursues its thematics with short-sighted, fast burning fervour, making it an uneven, jarring viewing experience. At one point, it’s as if someone noticed, mid-way into the shoot, that the religious overtones weren’t stressed enough, so we are granted a scene where Rose enters a church and kneels to pray, framed with a halo of light, as the camera swings up into a high angled shot, showing a statue of Christ wrapping his arms around the poor, doomed girl.
It’s astonishing. Brighton Rock is too breathlessly humourless to be cheekily kitsch, and it lacks the self-aware, genre tinkering intelligence for it to be a British Shutter Island. It’s not to say there aren’t flashes of technical bravado hidden within, but maybe, from now on, Joffé needs a straitjacket.
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