Brighton Rock, 2011.
Written and Directed by Rowan Joffe.
Starring Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Andy Serkis, Helen Mirren and John Hurt.
Pinkie (Sam Riley) is a young gangster in 60s Brighton who must seduce the naïve Rose (Andrea Riseborough) after she is a potential witness to to a murder Pinkie's gang committed.
The first image of Brighton Rock is a top-down shot of the sea at night, black and impenetrable, while the score washes waves of menacing strings over the audience. You can't help but think of Scorsese's latest masterpiece Shutter Island and in terms of tone, this is a fair comparison, director Rowan Joffe nailing the film noir mix of shadowy visuals and forboding music perfectly. Cinematographer John Mathieson completely outdoes himself here, utilising vintage 60's camera lenses and a lens built specially for the film by Panavision to portray 1960s Brighton as a town on the edge, where the garish beach houses and tacky entertainment clash with the shadowy underworld lurking underneath, clawing it's way upward. Mathieson combines wide, beautiful panoramic shots with some clever smaller shots too, such as a corpse POV shot as the coffin lid is closed. Another flashy but not distracting shot is when Pinkie first speaks to Rose and appears to raise a pistol and shoot her, before it is revealed he's actually at a pier shooting game, the trick-shot acting as a signifier of the danger Rose is letting herself in for and the cold, psychopathic and selfish nature of Pinkie.
Sam Riley plays the young gangster Pinkie as a desperate but inexperienced character, eyes on the prize but not on his back, his cold, psychotic demeanor a front for the extremely vulnerable boy underneath. Riley is simply magnetic, his performance oozing menace and unpredictability, his cold stare and shrewd, flickering eyes give the impression that he's going to snap at any second. Andrea Riseborough on the other hand, portrays Rose as almost Pinkie's opposite, extremely vulnerable and naïve on the surface, but fiercely loyal at her core. Riseborough's scenes with Riley are almost painful to watch, so acutely the performances capture the awkwardness and confusion of characters wrestling with their own defects, and in Pinkie's case, lashing out to reinforce his masculinity. Equally compelling is the always reliable Helen Mirren, cast as Ida, who owns the tea shop Rose works in. A headstrong, confident yet warm character, Mirren imbues Ida with the perfect amount of class, compassion and wit, acting as the perfect counter-point to Riley's rough anti-hero.
The entire film, (like the novel and the majority of Greene's work) is shot through with catholic guilt. For one, its Pinkie's primary reason for his ever-escalating fear throughout the film. While he's terrified of dying, he's even more afraid of the eternal damnation awaiting him. In an early scene with Rose he talks of Hell, almost resigned to his supposed fate, for when Rose asks him 'What about Heaven?' he expresses disbelief that he'll ever see it. When he is chased by a rival gang and almost killed, Pinkie hides behind a beach-divider, drops to his knees and prays desperately, blood running from his hands, begging forgiveness when he believes he's close to the end. Greene himself converted to Catholicism so that he could marry his wife, and this struggle between himself and catholic teachings was a huge influence on his work, looming over his life, just as in a scene when Rose goes to a church to pray and it's filmed from just over the shoulder of a giant crucifix, hanging over the scene and the entire film. Pinkie speaks of how he's is proud to be a Roman Catholic, but he is fully aware that the things he's done and the path he's chosen to take will lead him to damnation, this contradiction further embellishing Pinkie as a complicated, terrified young man.
Adaptations from books can frequently fall into pitfalls when they change crucial details such as the setting or the time period, although some, like High Fidelity's move from England to Chicago are seamless and suit the interpretation. Thankfully, Brighton Rock's move from 30s Brighton to 1964 is not only seamless but actually enriches the story. 1964 was the last year that the death penalty was in place in England, avoidance of the gallows being one of Pinkie's driving factors. A superbly lensed dream sequence where Pinkie finds himself hung over the crashing sea of the first shot is as telling as it is elegant, the sea representing the sprawling damnation in Hell that Pinkie faces if he is caught. Another masterstroke in the films re-setting is that 1964 was the year of clashes between youth gangs the mods and the rockers, taking over Brighton and representing one of the first years of British youth empowerment, a new wave of youth culture which left the older generation terrified. In the middle of all this unrest, Pinkie's confused young gangster fits perfectly, a distinct crystallisation of a youth movement which want it all and aren't afraid to reach out and take it.
Brighton Rock is a compelling noir tale, beautifully filmed and perfectly realised. Superbly acted throughout, with Sam Riley's performance so magnetically menacing you simply can't tear you eyes away from him. A superb adaptation Graham Greene would surely be proud of, and a perfect example of all the elements in a film coming together seamlessly. Well done to all involved.
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