Knives on the pier
In his new film of Graham Greene’s 1938 crime novel Rowan Joffé deserves credit for creating a world that is both horrific and visually rich, drenched in grime and mold and blood, with occasional trips to a posh hotel or a gracious tearoom or glimpses of Victorian piers that are both dark and celebratory. For what happens within these settings obviously Greene has provided material with a non-stop intensity, the oppressiveness of a provincial gangland (the big boss is named Colleoni) combined with the doomed drive of a young socioopath, Pinkie Brown, armed with a razor blade, a warped Catholic wanting to triumph or die. This film is a good watch for its atmospheric visuals, but a certain lack of neatness and drive undermine the momentum half way through, and the 111 minutes come to seem like ages. Something is wrong with editing here, but with writing too.
And, alas, casting. The story was originally filmed in 1947 with a young and terrifying Richard Attenborough in the leead. The trouble may start in this new version with the new Pinkie. He’s Sam Riley, the tall, cadaverously handsome young actor who was so good as Ian Curtis, the doomed lead singer of Joy Division, in Anton Corbijn’s 2007 film Control. Riley, like a less to-die-for than Robert Pattinson but more naturally ghoulish Edward Cullen, seems more gloomy and intense than menacing. Riley’s Pinkie appears to be hellbent on something, but not deeply scary enough or unpredictable enough to justify all the terrible things his character does and is willing to do. He’s more a sad sack than a killer. And also something of a clothes horse, looking sharp with slicked-down black hair and tight Sixties suits. A simpler problem is that he’s too far from being what Pinkie is, a teenager (he’s 30; Attenborough was 24). The time has been switched from Thirties to 1964, but it’s become a little vague. Everyone is so sallow and pinched and the landscape so dreary. A Thirties patina isn’t wholly vanished, but there have been a few outlandish lamps and armchairs and short dresses added. The automobiles, whenever they may come from, are gorgeous museum pieces; Brighton itself is a museum piece. Background music, which works well for a while, is sweeping and intense in the manner of the Forties. The interiors of Pinkie’s room and his girlfriend’s house are something else again. They’re like the decaying spaces for rotting flesh of the deliciously sepulchral and hyperreal paintings of Ivan Le Lorraine Albright. Even your eyes feel slimed and dirty going into them. All this is great stuff, but becomes cloying in the absence of full-on narrative drive or depth of characterization.
In the prelude Pinkie’s petty gang boss Kite (Geoff Bell) gets murdered under a boardwalk by the rival Corlleoni gang (Colleoni himself is played by the Animatronic star Andy Sarkis, who seems to be remote-controlling his own body and voice from a slow distance). Pinkie wants to assume the mantle of his gang and strikes a blow against Colleoni by immediately killing one of Colleoni’s operatives, Fred Hale (Sean Harris). Lacking purchase on one of the knives and straight razors he and his fellow gang members carry, Pinkie bludgeons Fred with a rock — a real one, not the candy kind of the title. He’s also picked up a slash across his own cheek.
Rose (Andrea Riseborough) is a tearoom waitress who could link Pinkie to the crime. Her boss is Ida (a redheaded, chalkily made-up Helen Mirren), who sees through Pinkie’s wooing of Rose; she has a dapper old beau called Phil (John Hurt), whose role other than to add another name actor to the film I did not grasp. Rowan Joffé, who also wrote the screenplay, may have tried to cram in too much of the book, though his witty and telling script for Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later shows he’s handy with a pen. (I like The American, which he also wrote, but many feel it falls flat.) Of course Mirren and Hurt are fun to watch, and the camera loves their wrinkly, powdered faces. Action turns on a deal with a father, a civil wedding ceremony, a moped rallye clash of Mods and Rockers, meetings with Colleoni in his garish hotel suite, chases around the boardwalk, and moments teetering on a cliff over the sea. But the heart of the drama is the uneasy relationship between Rose and Pinkie. She chooses to adore him, which might make more sense within the sexual politics of 1938 than at the dawn of the Swinging Sixties. If Riley’s Pinkie were more menacing, he’d be sexier. What he really feels toward Rose is contained on a record he makes for her in a little carnival booth. When she finally hears it, the movie mutes the brutal truth. And we go out having had an intense dose of nastiness — but performed by people who seem to be just inexplicably going through the motions.
Brighton Rock premiered at Toronto, Oct. 2010. It opened in the UK Feb. 14 and went into limited release in the US August 19, 2011 and thereafter.
DIRECTOR: ROWAN JOFFÉ
STARS: HELEN MIRREN, JOHN HURT, SAM RILEY, ANDREA RISEBOROUGH, PHILLIP DAVIS, ANDY SERKIS
RUNTIME: 111 MIN