When a character in a movie can’t manage to put the phone back on the hook, you know they’re in trouble. With an old mac dripping wet, a frightened man drops the phone and runs out of the old red phone box and back into the rain. He’s being chased, in a brown pre-digital world of tea dances, vinyl records and the death penalty, and he doesn’t make it.
The man, Kite, was the boss of a small time gang in 1960s Brighton, and his death sets in motion the series of events that make up Brighton Rock. The gang needs a new leader and Pinkie (Sam Riley of Control fame), a vicious young man with a fresh scar on his face, reckons he’s the man for the job. As well as trying to take over his gang, Pinkie also gets involved with blushing innocent Rose (Antonia Riseborough) to stop her talking to the police about a murder to which she is a key witness.
Even if you’ve read Graham Greene’s novel or seen the Boulting brothers 1947 movie that starred Richard Attenborough (said to be the best British Noir movie), it might be best to take this new version of the story on its own terms. There are certain differences – for starters the new film is set in 1964 rather than the late 30s – and director Rowan Joffe sees his movie as a new interpretation, rather than a remake. In the book, various gangs do quite a lot of bending the arms of bookies at Brighton racecourse, (at least according to my sketchy memory from studying the book for my GCSEs). In this movie, the racecourse only features as a small flier pinned to the wall in Pinkie’s gang’s basement.
This film seems to have annoyed quite a lot of people, but I thought it was pretty good. Sam Riley’s Pinkie seethes with a bubbling mix of the youthful surliness, ambition, and a very nasty streak indeed. His face is alternatively alive with tics and blank with suppressed fury. Rose is a perfect as a timid mouse, falling for Pinkie and edging from innocence towards experience.
The rest of the cast are a pleasure to watch too: from the ever dependable Helen Mirren and John Hurt to a fabulous Andy Serkis as an oleaginous cigar-smoking gangster, you’ll leave the cinema feeling the performances are enough to make for a fine movie. The film looks good too – authentically Sixties. Not the glitzy decade of Swinging London, but the low wattage Sixties that most of the country lived in. There’s also a great use of Beachy Head where Pinkie and Rose go on a date – as one of the most spectacular spots in the UK, it’s about time it has made it as a movie location.
Key to Greene’s novel is that both Pinkie and Rose are “Roman”, as he puts it, (Roman Catholics that is). Both grapple with sin and salvation, which gives the story an added dimension of horror. This religious element might not work quite so well in this new movie, but concern with the state of one’s soul is a interior drama. It is difficult to express this inner sense of doom without a voice over, not to mention in a post-religious age like today. Joffe does his best: “I’m bad. You’re good. We’re made for each other,” says Pinkie, and somehow makes perfect sense.
The Mods fighting it out with the Rockers on the sea front and one particularly scootertastic scene are interesting to see for those of us who missed it, and add a topicality to the gangsters’ hermetically-sealed world too. But this, verging on the cool, is not much more than extra sheen. The movie rides on powerful performances of spectacular characters in a timeless story.