A highly stylised 1960s update of Graham Greene’s famous story of ‘40s seaside lowlifes, Brighton Rock is arguably the bravest – or most foolhardy – British picture of the year.
Debut director Rowan Joffe ladles on the gothic with beautiful, lingering shots of the shining black sea to give the whole production an air of malevolence. The drawback is that his leading man lacks the power, menace and charisma to pull off what should be a showcase in psychosis.
England, 1964. Pinkie Brown is a small-time hoodlum elevated to something approaching the big time when he kills a rival. Later as his ambition grows he faces off with Colleoni (Andy Serkis in camp villain mode). He also seduces Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a naive, adoring waitress for whom Pinkie becomes the focus of her narrow existence. She cannot know that she is the only witness to his crime and his attentions mask his need to keep her quiet.
Joffe packs his films with familiar faces and rising stars. Helen Mirren is Ida, a gaudy, painted, over-the-hill woman and Rose’s boss. John Hurt is Phil Corkery, who loves Ida. Phil Davis is Spicer. Sean Harris is Hale and Craig Parkinson is Cubitt. Surrounded by such top-flight support, Sam Riley as Pinkie should soar.
He does not. A pallid, black-eyed heavy possessed of a hard, dead-eyed stare and little else, Riley lacks the intrinsic sociopathic personality that Greene describes in the book. For this is very much a new adaptation of the novel as opposed to a remake of the Boulting Brothers’ 1947 original starring Richard Attenborough.
Joffe does a magnificent job of transposing the far-off Forties to the Sixties, a decade still within recent memory. He convinces his audience that Rose can undergo a believable transformation from mousy wallflower to obsessive moll. And the milieu is painted in a palette of vivid colour with an almost constant soundtrack for aural reinforcement.
Yet it is impossible to not judge Riley against Attenborough’s superior performance as the monotone, scarred psychopath. The landscape may be different but the central character is not. Joffe has created a visual feast that emerges as a triumph of style over content. Brighton Rock is a mouth-watering recreation of the era of the Mods and the Rockers. Brighton and south coast never looked more chill or threatening. Only Riley, in a one-note performance, fails to match his surroundings.