Sunday, April 24, 2011
Brighton Rock (2010) dir. Rowan Joffe
Starring Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, John Hurt, and Helen Mirren
By Blair Stewart
Youthful Pinkie Brown has a pretty boy smile with a heart and soul like a burnt-out piece of meat, nothing left on the plate but some gristle. As the razor-thugs of Brighton cannibalize each other for the protection money and racecourse stubs Pinkie peeps opportunity after his mentor cops it to their rivals. The lad might look a small fry in a sordid haunt but once implicated in gangster payback by a good-girl Catholic witness our wee Pinkie becomes a shark in blood-waters.
Graham Greene's Brighton Rock clawed at the squirmy underbelly of England between the Great Wars, a filthy country stewing in vices and religious angst with Pinkie's teenage psycho on a moral see-saw across from the dull, virtuous Rose flagellating for the Virgin Mary. A 1947 film adaptation by John Boulting not only introduced a memorable creepshow Sir Richard Attenborough in his breakthrough lead role, but the film itself now resides on the same shelf of British film standards along with The Third Man, A Matter of Life and Death and Great Expectations.
Rowan Joffe, son of Roland, who was responsible for The Killing Fields, takes a ballsy step in his debut by updating a classic with Pinkie in the middle of the 1960 Mods and Rockers youth riots of Quadrophenia lore. Sam Riley (who previously made for a bang-on Ian Curtis in the Joy Division biopic Control) steps into Pinkie's shoes, a thirty-year old acting as a teenager more admirably than most people, namely my own broken-down ass. As the Irish waitress, Andrea Riseborough plays an oblivious small-town Red Riding Hood as she mistakes Pinkie's skulking for courtship. Hovering about the curdled love story is Helen Mirren as Rose's knowing boss with raised hackles around the boy, and together with an elegantly wasted John Hurt they play junior detectives. In a cameo, Andy Serkis leaves a trail of resplendent Brylcreem sleaze as the local heavy.
The desperation of scrubs on the margins of the criminal trough produces a yearly crop of worthy film subjects, with David Michod's recent and most excellent Animal Kingdom coming to mind, but this remake (or 're-imaging' or 're-invigorating') of Greene's work has too much starch to it and just ends up poorly baked. Although I can believe Mirren and Hurt as wastrels killing time off the clock in the local pub, the rest of the main cast has a sheen of fakery around them, with a pivotal riot sequence sticking out artificially in example. The 'rampaging' Teddy Boy extras look like they're just going through the motions, and I couldn't buy into Joffe's version of the time, place, or as mentioned, most people. Riley and Riseborough simply don't inhabit their characters, and no amount of vintage set decoration could distract from the dearth of mortal guilt in their eyes when their mouths were saying otherwise.
I came away from Brighton Rock with the impression that the story was updated by three decades for the simple reason of Pinkie on a 60's Vespa looks cool, which just doesn't cut it. Style can only go so far when you fuddle about with the classics. Classics might have heaps of style, but it's the substance that gives a work longevity.