Brighton Rock

Crime and Candyfloss

Brighton Rock

This review was first published in Arts in Leicestershire magazine, on 22nd February 2011. The film was screened at Phoenix in February 2011.

The 2010 film Brighton Rock, is loosely based on Graham Greene’s 1938 novel of the same name. Rowan Joffé wrote the screenplay and directed the film, which stars Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Andy Serkis, John Hurt, Sean Harris and Helen Mirren.

Scene from the 2010 film Brighton Rock
Scene from the 2010 film Brighton Rock

Our review

In a dark, edgy thriller with convincing characters and settings and sumptuous camera work,  Joffé has done a superb job in updating the Boulting Brother’s classic of 1947, which starred Richard Attenborough.

Set in the Brighton of 1964, Director Rowan Joffé has adapted the plot of Greene’s novel and reworked it. The opening sequence tells you that it is not going to follow the story of the novel in precise detail. The film brings into sharp contrast the rock and candy-floss seaside holiday resort with the low-life brutality of gangland criminals and pulls in the infamous teenage riots of the 60s between the mods and the rockers. Certainly the location shots make it look like the Brighton I knew in 1964, as far as I can remember, but then I was only 17 at the time.

“The Boy”, Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley) is portrayed as a cold, heartless, calculating hoodlum, who would stop at nothing to further his criminal career in protection rackets and extortion. His humourless face rarely smiles, locked into a steely-eyed stare as his mind concentrates fanatically on the chess board moves of gangland business. Pinkie is pursuing gangster Fred Hale and kills him under the pier. Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a vulnerable though strong-witted young waitress at Snows teahouse, briefly met Fred on the Pier, before the murder. The two of them were photographed together, on the Palace pier.

Anxious to recover the incriminating photo, Pinkie goes to Snows and is served by Rose. The actor who plays Pinkie (Sam Riley, 31) captures Greene’s character (except that he has dark brown eyes whereas, in the book, they are significantly described as a sinister “slatey gray”). In the book Pinkie is 17; Sam Riley looks older (by modern standards) but could pass as 17 in even 1964 and certainly so in the 1930s days of the book, when men matured and looked older at a much earlier age.

Pinkie wants to take over the mob from gang leader Spicer. Hale was a friend of Ida Arnold (played by Dame Helen Mirran) who runs Snows. Mob leader Colleoni (played by Andy Serkis of Gollum fame) tells Ida that “Brighton is on the move”, a reference to its growing popularity with the holiday seeking public as well as with the teenagers who are terrorising south coast towns.

Pinkie is taken in the by the Police,who question him about Hale’s murder but as they have no evidence, they let him go. The police know that Spicer is now running Kite’s gang.

The love tryst between Rose and Pinkie is kept deliberately ambiguous. Whereas some scenes suggest that Pinkie really does, deep down, have some affection for the girl, in others we see him as merely using her in a cynical effort to further his plans and devices in the small-town crime world. The anthem of doomed love plays out against the backing of grimly violent evil and the rioting that engulfs the happy-go-lucky seaside resort.

Pinkie takes Rose (on his stolen scooter) to some high cliffs. He questions Rose about Hale and the mob, trying to find out how much she knows. He takes her to the edge of the cliff; he asks her if she is scared. She replied “not when I am with you”, they kiss and the scene ends its portrayal of the developing and ambiguous relationship between the young gang leader and the somewhat innocent waitress.

Spicer asks Pinkie to buy him out of the gang so he can leave Brighton, allowing Pinkie to take over the gang. In an acutely worked scene, Pinkie goes to see mob boss Colleoni, to offer a joint operation but his real plan is to get Spicer removed. The scene at the Palace pier shows Colleoni’s men attacking Spicer but they also turn on Pinkie in a disturbing act of subterfuge.

The mob’s battles are set against the backcloth of riots between the mods and the rockers. Pinkie puts Spicer on the back of his stolen scooter and rides to the pier; on the way he gets into the middle of a huge group of mods on scooters. Crowds line the street to cheer them on while the rockers jeer and curse at them. The gangs fight it out under the pier as the mods and rockers battle it out on the beach.

Pinkie uses the chaos caused by the  rioting teenagers to make his escape from the mob. The good thing about this film is that it tells a story in the ‘present’, no flashbacks, it has one continuous time line. Pinkie kills Spicer by thrusting a stick of rock into his throat but unconvincingly tries to make it look like a suicide.

Pinkie marries Rose at a registry office, knowing that a wife cannot be compelled to testify against her husband. After the marriage ceremony, we see Pinkie and Rose on the pier, where she asks him to go into a booth a make a record of his voice. As Rose stands outside the booth, unable to hear what Pinkie is saying, she imagines that he is putting his love for her on record. In fact, he is saying that he does not love her, that, in fact, he hates and despises her but he prefaces his rant with the words, “You asked me to say, I love you “.

Ida confronts Rose, interrogating her about what she knows. Ida goes to see Colleoni in an effort to protect Rose from Pinkie. In an attempt to end the girl’s life and remove the risk of her ‘squealing’ on the gang, Pinkie takes Rose back to the cliff tops and asks her to commit suicide by shooting herself.

Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know how it ends, look away now.

The scene jumps from the cliff top drama to Ida finding one of the gang members and making him drive her to the spot where Pinkie said he would take Rose. In a nail-biting climax, the two of them arrive at the cliff top, almost as Rose is about to pull the trigger of the gun she is holding to her ear. The gang member fights with Pinkie, who tries to get hold of the gun to kill him, but, as they wrestle on the ground, Pinkie pulls out of his coat pocket the bottle of Sulphuric Acid that he used to frighten Rose, earlier in the film. Struggling to get the top off the acid bottle, it shatters in his hand and the acid sprays over his face and eyes. In his agony, Pinkie falls over the edge of the cliff to his death. We see Pinkie’s corpse, his face burnt off by the acid, dead on the beach below.

In the closing scenes, Rose has retired, heavily pregnant with Pinkie’s child, to a convent. The Abbess, like Ida, tries to convince her that Pinkie never really loved her and she should try to forget him.

In the final scene, she plays the record they made on the pier, for the first time and hears Pinkie’s voice saying “I love you” but the tracks are damaged and she lays there listening to the words being repeated over and over, never getting to hear the rest of the message.

The casting is good, the acting superb and the camera work sharp and evocative. It is a totally different version from the original classic production of 1947and Riley’s character is played very differently from Attenborough’s performance. Transposing out of the 30s into the 60s achieved very little, as the mods and rockers aspect occupies only one scene and is just a montage against which the plot is played out.

Whilst I thought the camera work was superb, the monastery music was decidedly odd, linking back into the religious motif that runs through the film but it’s still only a backdrop. It suggests that even in the midst of the evils of gang crime, people can still believe in Heaven and Hell and make a pretense of faith. Like the mods and the rockers, the scenes in the church, Pinkie praying to God during his flight from the mob, the religious elements are just for decoration, rather than having anything approaching the depth that we find in Greene’s work. They salute Greene’s preoccupation with Catholicism but there is no deeper layer behind the narrative of the story line in this film.

Joffé’s film is an exciting and visually stimulating piece of film noir; well casted and acted, very different from the earlier version and a good two hours of cinema. Worth seeing, whether you have read the book and seen John Boulting’s version, or not.

Good things about the film: sharp camera work and top class acting from Sam Riley, Helen Mirren, Andrea Riseborough and John Hurt. Keeping to the language of the 1930s in the dialogue even though it would have been an anachronism in the mid 60s.

Bad things: lack of attention to contemporary details in the mods and rockers scene and the rather irrelevant migration of the setting to the 1960s.

Trevor Locke

Re-published on 9th August 2015 to mark the broadcast of the film on BBC2 television.