This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 15 May 2011
This latest rendition of the 1939 novel by Graeme Greene is both a stunning film and a nasty piece of work. Pinkie Brown and his fellow thugs were originally brought to life in the Richard Attenborough-starring film of 1947. Now director Rowan Joffe kicks off his feature film career by relocating the classic story to 1964, when Mods and Rockers rode around on scooters, and gangsters carried combs in their breast pockets and switchblades up their sleeves.
Pinkie (a brooding Sam Riley, as compelling here as in his first main role playing the doomed Ian Curtis in Control) is the runner in a criminal gang, who hoists himself swiftly to the top after his boss is murdered. In such an environment, revenge is a given, but the presence of a witness is not, so Pinkie ingratiates himself upon the innocent Rose (Made in Dagenham’s Andrea Riseborough) to ensure she doesn’t incriminate him in a brutal crime. Rose quickly falls for him, despite Pinkie’s evident lack of warmth or charm, once he tells her “You’re good. I’m bad. We’re made for each other”.
Thanks to painstakingly authentic production design, the stand-in for Brighton Pier retrieves the gaudiness of its heyday, and the characters’ costumes and hairstyles fit right in. Even their dialogue, slightly stilted in that mannered, old-fashioned way, perfectly evokes the era. Photographed by the cinematographer for Gladiator, and directed by the man who wrote other slow-burning thrillers such as The American, this is a class act, with support including Helen Mirren (channelling DI Jane Tennison rather than Her Majesty), familiar face Phil Davis and a crusty John Hurt.
But, at heart, this is Pinkie and Rose’s story, and once they seal their doomed romance with a kiss on the edge of a steep cliff, we the audience are never allowed to step back from the precipice. Brighton Rock is at times a hard watch, our sympathy lying with the gullible Rose rather than the sociopathic Pinkie, who idly plucks the legs from a spider while intoning “she loves me, she loves me not…”. In his rendition of Pinkie, Riley walks the fine line between sinister and tantalising, and while no self-respecting woman would fall for him nowadays, we can just about believe why Rose might.
The film is one long, measured exercise in dread and tension. Its fight scenes are violent yet artistic (an early one sees the juxtaposition of happy holidaying faces with a frantic struggle and the flash of knife blades). Ironically, it is perhaps the straightforward narrative of Greene’s source story that causes the film to sometimes feel a little shallow, preventing it from turning into the more modern, fast-paced and complex thriller that today’s audiences are used to. At the same time, this restraint reinforces the authenticity and quality of its ’60s atmosphere.