Movie Review: Brighton Rock

A polarising take on the 1947 adaptation

It takes a brave man to remake the Boulting Brothers post-war adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel. Released in 1947, and staring Richard Attenborough as 17-year-old thug Pinkie Brown, the film is as iconic as any of the era. A story as grim as the grime washed in on the towns pebble beach, it was so notorious on release that the Daily Mirror critic who reviewed the film concluded his review by stating “this film should not be shown”. A brave remake then – or maybe just stupid.

In truth it’s a bit of both, which is a more balanced review than most that have encompassed the recent backlash to Rowan Joffe’s remake. It’s easy to see reviewers misgivings, The American’s scriptwriters take on the tale isn’t without its revisions; the narrative is now set in 1964, well on the runway to the death penalty being rescinded, and now set against the backdrop of youth in revolt – Mods, Rockers, all that. Joffe also plays up the original religious symbolism of Greene’s novel, often described as the authors first “truly Catholic work”. It fits snuggly with Martin Phipps old-fashioned orchestral score.

Where Joffe’s interpretation of the source material might be deemed stupid is in his stylistic tweaks. Culturally and politically 1964 was a more different time than 1947 was to 1938, and the shoehorning in of Mods and Rockers is an unsatisfying (the unkind would say contrived) addition to the narrative. It means the new film loses some of the danger of the earlier outing, and sometimes the montages of moody young men on scooters veer a little too close to a promo short for some awful Britpop band. But there’s still enough here to make a case for a brave, perhaps even inspired reimagining.

Pinkie, played by Sam Riley, is left well enough alone to be as good a antihero as Attenborough’s take on the young gangster, yet the Control actors subtle brushstrokes craft a character maybe more realized than his prior incarnation. It’s best explained via a scene lifted straight from the novel, in which Pinkie is seen courting Rose (the ably cast Andrea Riseborough, who works wonders in navigating her characters descent from naive teagirl to moll). During their first date he cruelly pinches her arm. She tells him if he likes it, he can continue. It’s the look of consternation on his face that perfectly embodies Greene’s intended message. Is cruelty something we’re born with, or are we free to choose?

Alongside a rich, best of British cast (Andy Serkis as Mr Colleoni, John Hurt as Phil Corkery, Helen Mirren as Ida), it’s these new insights that did most to endear Joffe’s film to me. On the basis of those aforementioned reviews, they may repel many others. Such are the hazards in embroaching beloved source material; you’re not just tinkering with original works but its audience’s personal experience. Yet it’s unlikely this will be the last take on Brighton Rock; it’s interesting that Joffe’s ending is the one Greene originally intended for the 1947 film.

Few would say Joffe’s take is the definite version of Greene’s classic, but perhaps that fact suggests that somewhere between the two lays an adaption that’s getting close to being so. Give it a few years, and fans may well become appalled at a remake all over again. In varying ways to the original, Pinkie will always repel.

James McMahon