Thursday, 27 January 2011

'Brighton Rock' review:

It can be a thankless task adapting a beloved novel to the screen. It is then a doubly thankless task when you choose to adapt a beloved novel which has already spawned an equally beloved film. Though first time director and several-time writer Rowan Joffe - whose previous screenwriting credits include '28 Weeks Later' and 'The American' - has undertaken this very task with his updated version of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. 'Brighton Rock' is the story of a criminal named Pinkie who murders a rival gang member and is forced to cover his tracks in order to avoid a grim death by hanging. The only witness to his crime is a young innocent named Rose, who Pinkie decides to romance in order to ensure her silence.

When I say "updated" I simply mean that Joffe has moved the story from its 1930s setting to the mid-1960s and has set the action amongst the "mods and rockers riots" of the era, made famous on the silver screen by the 1979 film 'Quadrophenia' - a cinematic reference the film alludes to with its relocation of the climax from Peacehaven (or the Palace Pier in John Boulting's 1947 version) to Beachy Head. Sam Riley, best known for playing Ian Curtis in 'Control', stars as Pinkie, a role made famous by Richard Attenborough. Andrea Riseborough plays the naive waitress Rose, whilst the supporting cast is more impressive, boasting Helen Mirren, John Hurt and Andy Serkis as the debonair crime boss Mr. Colleoni. A thankless task re-makes may be, but there were signs that this stellar cast, coupled with the film's vibrant new context, could make this new adaptation something unique and edgy.

Sadly, Joffe's film suffers not only in comparison with the film of old, but also with just about any film currently in cinemas. It is poor. Very poor in fact. Bearing the brunt of this cinematic train wreck is Sam Riley, whose performance is embarrassingly one-note. His Pinkie seems to be in the mould of Phil Mitchell, as he speaks in a gravelly half-whisper for the entire film. The representation of his relationship with Rose is even worse. The history of cinema is littered with female characters who fall in love with gangsters and psychopaths; it is a well-worn idea and one that has been handled far better in a hundred different movies. Usually the guy is shown to have a lighter side, for example in the films of James Cagney: he is often smooth, funny and charismatic, only showing his darker side when pushed or challenged. Indeed Attenborough's Pinkie had an undercurrent of vulnerability to him and even sweetness if you knew where to look.

Riley's Pinkie, by contrast, has no light to complement the shade. He is unremittingly horrid from the first time he meets Rose until the last. As a result you care nothing for him, not even as a brooding anti-hero, and you wonder why Rose would ever be drawn to him in the first place. I saw an old interview with the great Peter Ustinov the other day in which he said that “it’s never worth playing a hero without a weakness or a villain without a heart, a character must have three dimensions and some sort of inner contradiction to make it interesting”. This is, in my opinion, true and it is the greatest failing of Joffe's 'Brighton Rock' that all of the characters are thinly drawn, though Mirren, Serkis and Hurt gamely try their best with the material (albeit with an air of deliberate camp). Riseborough succeeds at injecting her character with a warmth found nowhere else in the film, yet the script is so lacking in nuance and the central relationship so lacking in credibility that it is another thankless task.

'Brighton Rock' 2011 has few redeeming qualities other than the score by Martin Phipps and the fact that it gives people from Brighton and Eastbourne (where much of it was shot) the chance to see their town on a cinema screen. The film's clifftop climax is so badly done it's almost comical, whilst Joffe's direction verges on the amateurish and his evocation of overused mod imagery (such as Pinkie on a scooter) feels contrived and cynical. I'm not blithely dismissive of re-makes and adaptations by nature. They can be cracking fun and sometimes even brilliant cinema (all of Kubrick's films are literary adaptations, for instance). However, if you have nothing to add to the original besides a slight change of setting - and if you can't even adequately get across the core dynamic of that earlier work - then you have no business making that film.

'Brighton Rock' is out in the UK from Friday 4th February and can be seen at Brighton's Duke of York's Picturehouse. The film is rated '15' by the BBFC.

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