Brighton in the 1930s wasn’t a particularly cheery place to live – at least according to Graham Greene. Published in 1938, his classic novel Brighton Rock dealt with the flipside of the dapper, glitzy seaside town bursting with tourist attractions and swarming with day-trippers.
In Greene’ darker, grittier Brighton, it takes skill to navigate the tangled web of gang affiliations and old grievances in a world where switchblades are pulled at the drop of a hat and rival mobs clash over accidental murders and protection money.
This isn’t the first time Brighton Rock’s been adapted for the big screen – the first film, directed by John Boulting and released in 1947, is considered a classic and stands at number 15 on the British Film Institute’s list of the 100 best British films ever.
Why fix what isn’t broken, then?
To the inevitable question, producer Paul Webster quips that the 2010 version isn’t a remake of the first film; rather, it’s simply another adaptation of the book.
It’s hardly a faithful one, however, as it changes the narrative’s time period from the post-war period to the ‘60s, when two opposing youth subcultures, the Rockers and the Mods, seized headlines across the nation with lurid, sensational tales of their violent skirmishes.
The film centres on antihero Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley), a 17-year-old gangster with a streak of cruelty running as deep as the word “Brighton” is printed on every stick of the eponymous traditional British candy.
After brutally murdering journalist Fred Hale, Pinkie struggles to escape punishment but is relentlessly pursued by Ida Arnold (brilliantly portrayed by Helen Mirren), an old friend of the victim whose powerful love for life is matched only by her determination.
As his mob begins to fall apart under the strain of covering up the crime, Pinkie begins a doomed romance with a naïve waitress named Rose (Andrea Riseborough) in a desperate attempt to keep her mouth shut – her testimony is the only thing that keeps him from his retribution.
Helen Mirren is the real star of this film, radiating incredible class and a steely composure as she picks her way through Brighton’s underbelly, bent on seeking justice for Fred. While Ida might come across as imperious and overbearing, Mirren lends the character a sort of gentle ferocity that shows best in the scene where she confronts the deluded Rose with the truth about Pinkie, pleading with her to leave him for her own safety.
Pinkie, on the other hand, is poorly cast. At 30, Sam Riley is far too mature-looking to realistically portray the child criminal. His characterisation is also highly inconsistent, with one scene early in the movie showing Pinkie staring Fred Hale down in a bathroom. He pulls a knife, but takes no action – it’s the meek-looking Fred who emerges the victor, surprising Pinkie and shoving him to the ground.
Also, the reason behind the shift in time period only becomes apparent in one scene featuring a major clash between the Mods and the Rockers on the beaches of Brighton. Unlike the similarly-themed Quadrophenia, here they’re largely unnecessary and merely take away from the film noir atmosphere of the original work.
If that wasn’t already enough, the strong religious overtones of the novel are almost completely thrown out of the window, stripping the work of its depth and moral weight and reducing it to little more than any other B movie charting the rise and fall of some petty gangsters.
At almost 2 hours long, the film quickly outlives its welcome and utterly fails to sustain the viewer’s interest with its convoluted plot and groan-inducing coincidences, such as a scene in which a car stalls just long enough for a character to hop in, then roars to life as they speed away to their destination.
Rowan Joffé’s reinvention of Brighton Rock doesn’t hold a candle, votive or otherwise, to the 1947 adaptation by the Boulting brothers or the original novel. Unfortunately, even a strong performance from Helen Mirren and an impressive score can’t redeem this confused and haphazard pastiche.
Director: Rowan Joffé
Writer: Graham Greene (novel)
Starring: Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Helen Mirren
Release Date: 28 Jul 2011
Runtime: 111 mins