Waitress Rose is a witness to murder, so gangster Pinkie marries her to seal her lips – it’s the third version I’ve seen of Graham Greene’s epic doom-laden gangster novel. The first was the masterful, tense Richard Attenborough film in which Dickie brilliantly played Pinkie as a dead-eyed shell (not the only time he played a psychopath). Then there was a musical version at the Almeida theatre, with a terrific score by John Barry that dated from his brassiest Goldfinger period of writing.
Now there’s Rowan Joffe’s update which, judging by reviews from the Toronto film festival, didn’t go down well there. (One senses that the book is treated with a little too much reverence in some quarters.) However, let me be the voice of dissent because I thought most of Joffe’s choices were sound ones, and he’ll be vindicated as the film opens wider.
Several strokes work beautifully. The period-shift to the Mods and Rockers era of 1964 places Pinkie in a time of change that makes his throwback thieves’ honour system seem dated and doomed, and the staged beach battle feels like an extension of youthful violence that allows gangsterism to erupt into the everyday world. It’s a terrific idea that works perfectly.
The empowerment of Rose, who is so determined to be part of the better world she sees emerging around her that she steals money from Pinkie for new clothes, seems exactly right, and strengthens her conflict with Ida. Less put-upon, she wilfully chooses her tragic course.
The emergence of Ida (Helen Mirren) as the only one experienced and fearless enough to stand up to the gangsters works a treat, and provides the film with a source of audience identification, which overcomes the book’s central weakness. Graham Greene began ‘Brighton Rock’ as a screenplay and his leading character is a blank, so Joffe’s decision to give more screen-time to Mirren is a wise one, and the climactic confrontation on the cliffs is a brilliant move.
The reinstallation of Catholic guilt makes the relationship between Pinkie and Rose more believable. The keeping of the previous film’s ending (over the darker ending of the book) allows for a little moment of redemption, and to this you can add superb cinematography, a strong sense of time and place, a strong score and a sense of grandeur in the film’s styling. And how great it is to see a British film with well-staged set pieces again, particularly the Mods’ rally and the making of Rose’s recording.
On the negative side, Sam Riley’s baby-voiced glumness makes it hard to believe that even Rose could find him charming enough to die for, and Andy Serkis’s turn as gangster kingpin Colleoni feels a bit OTT. More damagingly, the simple set-up of two rival gangs at war in Brighton feels suddenly complicated, so that a sense of confused inertia settles over the middle of the film where there should be tension.
It feels like Joffe has a great future ahead of him, so long as he doesn’t follow too closely in his father’s footsteps, replacing substance with style. There’s nothing wrong with a little glamour, though, and this is a very stylish – and correctly violent – ‘Rock’. In a year of claustrophobically small British films (like the wildly overrated ‘The King’s Speech’) this feels appropriately big-screen.