It’s no exaggeration to say that, for some British film buffs, remaking Brighton Rock is like colorising Casablanca. It spoils the original, adds nothing, and makes you feel terrible just knowing about it.
The original Brighton Rock was made in 1949 and is considered the quintessential British film noir. It was a contemporary film, based on the successful novel by Graham Greene, about a murderous young thug trying to get ahead in Brighton, then as now a vibrant seaside town, the UK equivalent of San Francisco. This remake moves the action forward to the 1960s, when youth culture was on the rise and mods and rockers fought in the streets.
But if director Rowan Joffe had seized the moment and update the story to the present, it would have been so much more interesting. Crime reports coming out of British cities frequently feature teenage knife crime, gang culture, how girls endorse gang culture despite its misogyny and how adults can be powerless to help young people extract themselves. Then again, there’s already been a parallel novel: Alex Wheatle’s Brixton Rock, set in the 1980s. Unlike Hollywood remaking foreign films, British cinema prefers to eat itself.
It’s the story of Pinkie (Sam Riley), who is jockeying for position in the gangs that control the gambling, and gives himself a promotion by murdering Hale (Sean Harris). But the two men were photographed together on Brighton Pier with innocent teenager Rose (Andrea Riseborough), so to protect his freedom Pinkie must retrieve the photo and silence Rose at all costs. Unfortunately Rose works for Ida (Helen Mirren), who makes it her business to find out the truth behind Hale’s death, and protect Rose, whether she likes it or not.
Pinkie is one of the least attractive main characters in cinematic history. There is no spark of decency or humanity in him, no attempts at kindness, no photo of a car in his wallet or memory of his mamma to endear him to us. There isn’t even an illicit thrill and excitement in his badness, for him or for us. It’s a difficult choice for a lead character, so poor, deluded, desperate Rose becomes both the heart and the soul of the story. Riseborough, a star of British television who is rapidly achieving success in films, is utterly compelling in this difficult, degrading role. In the short scene where her father and Pinkie meet for the only time, Riseborough stands over the sink of dishes, listening with just the right combination of fear, disgust, and hope. She shows perfectly why Rose flings herself into Pinkie’s arms, and how exceedingly difficult she will be for anyone who tries to stop her.
Unfortunately it looks like the casting director chose actors, with the exception of Nonzo Anozie as Dallow, based on their resemblance to the stars of the original. Helen Mirren’s drive and empathy feel out of place with the lazy performances around her. Riley does not manage to ever let us know what Pinkie is thinking, turning what should be a cunning snake of a character into a greasy little slug. Andy Serkis, as a fearsome crime lord, has yet to put Gollum behind him. Phil Davis merely reminds us that he was in Quadrophenia, the original mods-rockers movie. And it’s difficult to keep a straight face during the opening fight to the death if you know that Riley and Harris have both played Ian Curtis (in Control and 24 Hour Party People, respectively). Someone definitely lost control.
More pressingly, keeping this a period piece presented a significant obstacle ï¿½" an authentic Brighton setting ï¿½" that the movie does not overcome. With the exception of some beach scenes filmed under the famous pier, most of the movie takes place indoors, in smoky pubs, polite tea rooms, depressing bedsits, or chic hotels. Whereas the original created pervasive claustrophobia and tension by showing how the gangs’ influence reached throughout the city, this movie feels cloistered and stagy. Joffe has directed TV movies, written several screenplays, and is also the son of a movie director. It feels like the theories he had about directing a movie did not translate in practice.
On a philosophical level, movies like Brighton Rock are exhausting. The British film industry’s refusal to make interesting contemporary movies means that we are mostly fed a diet either of worthy, international-distribution-friendly period pieces (Made in Dagenham, The King’s Speech, Nowhere Boy) or no-budget small-scale pictures designed for a regional audience (Better Things, I Know You Know, Awaydays). Why are so few British directors interested in making topical, relevant movies about how we live now? Well, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach are the exceptions that prove the rule ï¿½" but they have long-established careers and backers who will support them. So why can’t other British directors get backing for contemporary movies? If Pinkie had been a hoodie-wearing chav and Rose had the incriminating photo on her mobile, Brighton Rock really could have achieved something new all the way down.