Dir:- Rowan Joffe

Starr:- Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Sean Harris, John Hurt, Helen Mirren, Andy Serkis, Phil Davis

Rowan Joffe, son of The Mission helmer Roland Joffe, has cultivated quite a career for himself as a screenwriter. It was a Joffe script that underpinned Pawel Pawlikowski’s second feature, the harrowing asylum-seeker drama Last Resort, and he has also penned the low-key, but impressive, Martin Booth adaptation The American, starring George Clooney, as well as the zombie sequel 28 Weeks Later. This new cinematic adaptation of Graham Greene’s thirties novel Brighton Rock marks the first time Joffe has ventured behind the lens and it is striking how much of his father’s epic lyrical style he brings to this tale of small-time crime and gangland violence in Britain’s premier south-coast resort.

I’ve neither read Greene’s novel, nor watched the Boulting Brothers’ original 1947 adaptation, featuring a breakthrough performance from Dickie Attenborough. However, I’m aware that the original work, as befits a Greene novel/screenplay, was primarily focused upon the ideas of sin, guilt and morality, calling into question the actions of its Catholic protagonists Rose and Pinkie, the latter of whom, in particular, seems to show no capacity for moral action. The events of the last few weeks, in London and other cities in the UK, add a veneer to Joffe’s updating of the original source material, that wouldn’t have been there on the film’s original release back in Septemeber 2010. Joffe chose to update the gangland action of the movie, from the interwar years, to the early 60’s, immediately prior to the Swingin’ London scene of popular mythology, as well as the race-riots and women’s lib campaigns that crested the end of the decade. Thus the backdrop for the violence on display becomes the ‘mods’ and ‘rockers’ struggles of Quadrophenia (subtly evoked by the appearance of the always reliable Phil Davis).

Joffe gets things under way by focusing on two performances from actors who have inhabited the epileptic skin of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis. Sam Riley, who rose to prominence in Anton Corbijn’s Control, plays the central role of Pinkie, a sociopathic young Catholic gangster, desperate to assert his authority upon the decrepit firm he belongs to. Whilst, weasel-faced Sean Harris, who played Curtis in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, plays the flame-haired and fated Hale, an impulsive hoodlum for Serkis’ Colleoni crew, who sets the wheels of the narrative in motion by dispatching Kite (Geoff Bell), Pinkie’s mentor and head of the firm.

Riley, despite the obvious age issues, is an intense performer and his interpretation of Pinkie is an all-too-convincing one. Throughout the early sections of the movie he manages to combine a certain kind of self-preservationary fear, with the sadistic glee and pleasure in violence, that only a truly sociopathic personality can exhibit. Joffe is very good at highlighting the disturbing facets of Pinkie’s personality, the way in which he toys with a spider, or the close-up focus on his painful pinching of Rose, are two examples that spring readily to mind. The way in which Pinkie suppresses his disgust for the girl that he eventually makes his wife, is played out rather exquisitely in the controlled acts of violence he indulges in. The final sequence involving himself and Rose out on a cliff face, that is reminiscent of the white cliffs of Dover, see’s the culmination of Pinkie’s twisted attempts to corrupt a fragile soul with a little of his own damnation.

This is a crucial characteristic of the movie, the overwhelming sense of doomed and fated actions being relentlessly played out against the gloomy backdrop of Brighton, an ailing seaside resort and site of youthful rebellion. Looking at Joffe’s framing of the spider sequence, an alternate reading can be made, one that suggests a wicked web being woven, that enmeshes our young central characters in lives they can struggle against, but never free themselves from. Brighton is an utterly oppressive location, frequently swathed in fog, or mist. Joffe even appears to shoot many of the interiors through a gauzy atmosphere of lustreless cigarette smoke and sodium lighting, heightening the intense noirish claustrophobia of the proceedings. The way in which the young leads cannot see any real way out of their particular ‘destinies’, once again chimes with some commentator’s suggestions about what lay behind the August riots and lootings. When lives are pressed so rigidly into the well-worn paths of fate, it not only pulls people inexorably toward cataclysm, but also blinds them to the possibilities of escaping their ‘destiny’.

In this way the characters of Ida and Corkery (played by Helen Mirren and John Hurt) can be seen as the antithesis of Pinkie. Older, maturer, more observant of the bigger picture and, most importantly, willing to act, or intervene, to prevent fate being realised. Mirren does a fabulous job as the Brighton businesswoman who is determined to try and prevent Rose frittering away her life in Pinkie’s murderous grip. Aside from Serkis’ playboy crime-boss, she is the only figure in the film who stands up against Pinkie. Until the climactic physical altercation between Pinkie and his loyal crew member Dallow (Nonso Anozie), Pinkie’s depravities are allowed an ever-increasing scope of operation. Yet despite the fact that Pinkie clearly seems to be growing into the role of ‘the Big man’, his life is always returning to Brighton’s shorefront, and the strikingly realised, CGI-enhanced, pier. In many ways the pier plays a brutal central role in proceedings, acting as a conducting rod for all of the violence and discontent that manifests itself throughout the movie.

This latest incarnation of Brighton Rock is also rich in exceptionally rendered period detail. The stagnation that had set post-imperial Britain in a cloudy aspic is all-pervasive in the palatial banqueting halls and grand shorefront properties on display, emphasising this ‘low’ period of decline. For Pinkie the decline seems to fall-off into hell, resonating in the images of flame that intermittently engulf the screen. However, for Ruth (played assuredly by Riseborough), Brighton is a drudgery that Pinkie can convert into a dreamworld. The desperate sadness at the end of the movie is that Mirren’s efforts to forestall Ruth’s fate, save her life, but do not preserve her sanity. The hidden extent of Pinkie’s cruelty and loathing surface on a vinyl recording of his voice that he makes at Ruth’s behest. In the film’s closing sequence this distilled evil forms a callous and cold-hearted coda, being an extension of Pinkie’s arachnid-hold on Ruth, even from beyond the grave. It is this futile ending that serves to unambiguously underscore the painfully drab existences people can fall into in spite of their best intentions. Joffe has made a compelling, and markedly modern, British noir that leans less upon the thriller aspect of the genre and more upon the power of its atmospherics, in a similar way to Cronenberg’s adaptation of McGrath’s Spider.

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