A novel concept – Brighton Rock review

Brighton Rock – Starring Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough and Helen Mirren. Directed by Rowan Joffe. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

Rowan Joffe’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel Brighton Rock is, in theory, precisely the kind of book-to-film translation we should have more of. Taking the original text as a jumping off point, Joffe brings the 1930s set tale of an aggressive street punk to the 1960s, at the height of the mods and rockers rivalry. We already have Greene’s novel (and a 1947 film that is faithful to the original setting), so why keep pumping out the same version of a timeless story when we can enjoy an alternative version instead? Of course, I’ve never actually read Greene’s classic tome, so perhaps if I were a devoted fan I’d consider this an unforgivable transgression. But past experiences can’t be discounted. I much preferred Spike Jonze’s wildly tangential take on Where The Wild Things Are over Peter Jackson’s ‘make sure we hit every note, inject schmaltz where it wasn’t before, and reconstruct the narration entirely!’ failed attempt to bring The Lovely Bones to the big screen.

So, congrats to first time feature film director Joffe for having the guts to drastically alter that which many would consider to be ‘untouchable’. And double congrats for delivering a visually sumptuous flick his first time at the bat. That being said, I don’t think there is all that much evidence in the film that it is based on a legendary and lasting piece of literature. Brighton Rock was set in the 1930s, but it was also written in the 1930s. Joffe may be updating it by thirty-some years, but he is still making a period piece, and he succumbs to the trappings of the genre: by insincerely romanticising an era and making it feel just a little bit fake. He dresses up his actors with period precision and surrounds them with sublime art decoration, but it merely gives them enough rope to pretend they’re in a high school theatre production. That’s not to say their over-the-top performances and silly voices aren’t fun, but it trivialises a tale that from all accounts was originally a devastatingly tragic exploration of sin, morality and human nature.

King of the silly voices is Sam Riley, the one-time-next-big-thing who impressed us as Ian Curtis in Control, and similarly plays an angry young man here. His name is Pinkie, an opportunist, nihilistic and violent thug who takes advantage of his boss’ murder to take over the reins of his gang. Think Alex from A Clockwork Orange, but less friendly. His first order of business is to take revenge against the guy who killed his predecessor, but a spanner is thrown in the works when a simple waitress named Rose (Andrea Riseborough, also silly-voiced, but really rather excellent here) witnesses some inter-gang hostility. Pinkie starts “romancing” Rose (although that’s a generous description) in the hopes that it’ll keep her quiet and out of the ear of the coppers. She’s instantly smitten with her cruel new lover, and not even the nudges of restaurateur Ida (Helen Mirren, classing up the joint) can convince her to turn him in to the authorities.

Veterans John Hurt, Andy Serkis and Phil Davis turn in some nice supporting performances, and cinematographer John Mathieson does his best to make the film look as cinematic as possible. But there is an underlying sensation – perhaps even a subconscious one – that the whole endeavour feels like a telemovie (which might be an insult to consistently entertaining TV movies like the Sherlock films). Is it Joffe’s occasionally lumbering screenplay, or the aforementioned performances, that keep the film from being as transcendent a work as the novel? Or perhaps it’s all just a perfect storm of averageness? All I know is that while I appreciated Joffe’s efforts at reimagining the text, he probably should have tried to similarly shake-up the rest of the film’s staler elements.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Brighton Rock is now showing across Australia.

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