Graham Greene’s 1939 novel Brighton Rock beautifully juxtaposed the jovial setting of the sea-side with the merciless shadows of mob culture. This new reimagining perfectly recreates the undercurrent of conflict that drives the original narrative and of all the remakes produced in the last ten years, at least of those I’ve seen, it is certainly one of the more poignant and justified.
Something within me jilted slightly when I found out that the latest version of Brighton Rock was to be set in the early sixties. Obviously a pre-war backdrop provides a completely different context than that of the youth riots between MODs and Rockers presented in the film and initially I wasn’t sure if this was going to particularly nurture Greene’s original vision for the story. On reflection, however, the reason for the time shift is evident: the original Brighton Rock is considered a pretty much undisputed classic and thus the remake needs to offer something, or at the very least attempt something, the original doesn’t. Considering that some scenes are shot-for-shot identical to the original I think this was a prudent creative choice and, as such, the Brighton Rock of 2011 is set apart from its predecessor in many positive ways.
The story opens with a revenge murder carried out by budding gangster Pinkie (played by Sam Riley). The slaying takes place as children are waving plastic windmills in the wild breezes of the sea front, as families huddle together to watch Punch and Judy shows and as the ocean waves roll romantically into the shoreline. Just before this the murder the perpetrators are accidentally caught on camera with a young waitress on her lunch break by one of those pesky opportunist photographers one might still get snapped by at the seaside today. Pinkie’s gang, understandably, don’t want anyone remembering anything about their misdeed and, knowing that the unfortunate waitress in question suspects something, Pinkie makes it his business to seduce her in order to prevent the truth from surfacing.
The stilted love affair between Pinkie and Rose (Andrea Riseborough) is played out perfectly as Riley imposes himself on his depressingly tractable young prey. So convincing is Riley’s performance that even the audience is left unsure about how much Pinkie truly cares for his girl – a reveal the director, Rowan Joffe, holds back on until the last possible moment – and one cannot help but sympathise with the wide-eyed and somewhat downtrodden Rose who is so evidently besotted with this dangerously desirable man. The supporting roles in this film have also been excellently cast as Helen Mirren puts in a motherly turn as Rose’s ex-boss and potential saviour, Ida ,who takes it upon herself to bring Pinkie’s reign to an end and liberate Rose from her unwholesome infatuation. John Hurt is at hand to aid her in a quest and even Andy Serkis pops up in a rather random stint as feared gangster Mr. Colleoni. It sounds like an odd choice, and it is, but it strangely, somehow, works.
Furthermore, the setting of Brighton is used in myriad ways to striking effect. It is, in itself, a character that acts as a refreshing friend to visitors and a violent oppressor to residents. Joffe bleeds vibrant, multi-coloured shots of seaside cheer with shots verging on the gothic, turgid with long shadows and cawing seagulls to accentuate the clashing facets of the town. The use of the dramatically craggy, nearby cliffs of Beachy Head also boosts the build-up of tension and, of course, now holds a sinister and heart-rending poignancy as a location for anybody who has paid any attention to the news in the last few years.
The truly tragic climax to this cat and mouse love affair, when it comes, is as sly and predatory as Pinkie himself pouncing upon the audience and leaving them aghast at the utter sadness and sinister nature of the situation. Anyone who has been in love with somebody possessing a hidden darkness will empathise with the simultaneous terror and adventure that it can stir and anyone who hasn’t will count themselves lucky to have never experienced being at the mercy of a character so Machiavellian at their core.
Adaptations simply don’t come much more beautifully-shot and emotionally-driven than this. You will be hard-pushed to find a more-engrossing love story and a more assured performance than that of Riley’s: it’s definitely worth a watch.
Director: Rowan Joffe
Stars: Sam Riley, John Hurt, Helen Mirren, Andy Serkis
Runtime: 111 min