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FILM REVIEW: Brighton Rock

7th February 2011

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Brighton Rock begins with Graham Greene’s 1938 novel of the same name which told the story of the young gangster Pinkie Brown in 1930s Brighton. After killing a man, Pinkie courts and marries the only witness to his crime so as to prevent her from testifying. He is pursued by the honest and noble cockney, Ida Arnold, who in her determination to get to the truth, brings about a thrilling and lethal climax.Brighton Rock

In 1947, John and Ray Boulting directed an adaptation of this novel which would be later heralded as the   quintessential British ‘film noir’. Watching it now one can’t help but see its weaknesses. The film relies completely on basic class stereotypes and a girl immediately falling in love in an unreasonably short space of time. A great deal of screen time is spent with Pinkie (a very young Richard Attenborough) glaring into middle distance with a “you’ve not seen what I’ve seen” look. For a 1940s audience however, being invited into the private lives of gangsters with the knives and guns, cash and treachery, would have been thrilling and groundbreaking for British cinema.

As the 1940s arrived, it brought with it what we would later call ‘film noir’ which had been coloured by German expressionist cinema and French poetic realism. Damaged men with murky pasts were now the heroes or antiheroes. Brighton Rock stood out at this time as Britain’s great expression of how it related with post-war realism. 

In 2011, Britain once again took up the story under the direction of Rowan Joffe in his solo film-directing debut. Sam Riley (13) stars as Pinkie, Andrea Riseborough (Made in Dagenham) as Rose and Helen Mirren (The Queen) as Ida Arnold. This time the film is set in the sixties and includes the riots between the mods and rockers as a backdrop.Brighton Rock

There had been a distinct lack of depth to Pinkie in the original film and Joffe tries to remedy this by giving some vulnerability to Pinkie early on and showing some of his paranoid dreams. Unfortunately this is the only insight that we get into his mind and for the rest of the film, we see only the stony-faced Riley adopting the same glare that Attenborough had donned sixty four years earlier. The effect is much the same as we feel no sympathy or understanding for his character.

Rose once again falls in love almost immediately but more reason is given for this in the new film. Living with an abusive father, Rose is drawn towards a similarly controlling character in Pinkie and the film highlights the oppressive and suppressive forces at work in domestic life. Borderline marital rape and bullying are introduced in Pinkie and Rose’s relationship, showing that Joffe was keen to introduce disturbing social issues this time around.

The soundtrack is fantastic, creating excitement, fun and fear at precisely the right times. The camerawork is inventive and complementary to the action, particularly when Joffe uses a rolling camera for a fight on the beach. Joffe also decides to pay homage to the original film by using some of its dialogue. Unfortunately however, these words now appear peculiar and out of place to modern ears.

Helen Mirren is a welcome sight on screen, initially impressing with some bold manners akin to the original Ida (Hermoine Baddley). But her accent is inconsistent and slides regularly from cockney to the Queen’s English.

A very small cast keeps the focus of the plot a little too close-in, making the intensity that is built up early on, become tiring and repetitive. There are too many scenes where Pinkie ignores Rose to the point where we question exactly why she and he bother with one another.

Greater emphasis in the new film is put on the religious element that has great significance in the novel. However, whereas the novel defends the noble non-religious Ida while questioning the sins of the religious Pinkie and Rose, the new film is more ambiguous, offering only religious symbols and elusive dialogue to merely allude to meaning.          

In the wake of such films as The Godfather, Goodfellas and Casino, it is difficult for us to be as thrilled and shocked by Brighton gangs as the audience was when they left the theatres in 1947. In reviving Brighton Rock, Joffe has added some interesting and entertaining elements to the original. But he has tried to pump new blood into an archaic model which relied on a grittiness and shock-factor that it sadly no longer has in this day and age. Perhaps ‘film noir’ should remain in its glorious past and not be pulled into the 21st Century.

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