Made in Britain: Brighton Rock (2011)
Brighton Rock, and particularly Richard Attenborough’s epic portrayal against type of Pinkie Brown is a film that has obtained clasic status, and with the 21st Century’s remake fervour gripping the film industry, it was only ever going to be a matter of time before some bright spark decided to remake it. Now, I’m usually, as a matter of course incredibly anti-remake, but the basic premise of Brighton rock did seem to be readily available for an update, and the cast assembled suggested that we may have something potentially very special.
Brighton Rock is based on Graham Greene’s fantastic novel. Pinkie is a teenage thug, leader of a small time protection racket, who murders Fred Hale for an act of betrayal. In the novel, this is due to an article penned, ditto in the original film, but now it’s because Pinky witnesses the murder of his old boss, Kite. There’s an unfortunate witness, the naive Rose, and local busybody Ida, who realises that she was one of the last people to see Hale alive investigates. Pinkie is forced to begin a romance with Rose, who he despises, to keep her mouth shut. The local gang warfare between Pinkie’s mob and Colleone’s begins to accelarate and Pinkie eventually dies, leaving Rose a young widow.
This, superficially, is that rarest of beasts, the good British gangster novel. However, as with much of Greene’s work, it’s actually a strong critique of Catholicism and an essay on the nature of morality and sin. It’s important to notice that Pinkie and Rose are both devout catholics, but one is a murderer and the other complicit in covering it up. Greene intentionally juxtaposes this with Ida, fading good time girl and all round debauched alcoholic, who is pursuing her investigation to bring the teenage sociopath to justice simply because it is the right thing to do.
The 1947 adaptation, directed by the Boulting Brothers, had one advantage that the modern version doesn’t have: it was adapted by Greene himself with one of the 20th Century’s most underrated playwrights, Terrance Rattigan. Furthermore, it had acting legend Attenborough put in a terrifying turn as Pinkie. They turned in one of the very best slices of British Noir ever made, and one that’s comparable with the very best of the genre. It is no exaggeration to say that Brighton Rock (1947) is a nailed-on classic. The new version does not have this creative powerhouse behind it, and writer/ director Rowan Joffe has made it expressly clear that this isn’t a remake in interviews. Rather, he would have us believe that the 2011 version is another adaptation in its own right, and in no way comparable to the earlier masterpiece. This, by the way, is palpably horseshit and I’ll explain why in a minute. To attempt to distinguish the new version, he’s made the decision to move the action to the 1960’s, in the midst of the Mods and Rockers riots that plagued the south coast of England.
This, frankly, is not successful. There’s no point to moving the story to this time, and the presence of hand guns in the film (which incidentally don’t get used) strikes me as unnecessary and incongruous to the action. The gangsters use razors and switchblades, there is no need to introduce firearms (although they are referred to in the book). As to the setting itself, it’s but a superficial change, the equivalent of a plagiarising child changing a few words in a sentence. I did spend much of the run time wondering why he made the change, and I can only assume it was to try to catch some of the faux-cool that the likes of Quadrophenia exuded. As such, he sacrifices the grainy and noirish atmosphere of the story in favour of bright colour and a handful of clearly pre-prepped scenes of Pinkie riding a moped with gangs of mods.
The main characters are played by Sim Riley as Pinkie, Helen Mirren as Ida, and Andrea Riseborough as Rose with John Hurt and Phillip Davis providing excellent support and a truly scene stealing cameo from Andy Serkis as Colleone. This is as close to an acting dream-team that you could assemble for a Brighton Rock remake, and all of them put in good to great performances. Unfortunately, as hard as they try, there are serious, serious problems to the casting. Riley (fine actor that he is) is, and I’m being kind here, 10 years too old to play Pinkie. He doesn’t come across as unhinged and impulsive, and although he tries to cover it with a type of cold menace, it’s very difficult to believe that he would marry Rose rather than offing her at first opportunity. Secondly, Mirren is completely and utterly miscast. She’s also good, but the problem here is one within the writing. Her Ida is both far too glamorous, and nowhere near debased enough to the part. To try to compensate, it’s written that Hale was an ex-lover of hers, else she’s be little more than an annoying busybody sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong.
This brings me on to the central problem with Brighton Rock. It’s the writing. Greene’s initial story, as mentioned, is about morality in its purest form. Ida is pursuing Pinkie because “it’s the right thing to do”, that’s the sole reason, and it is something the 1947 film clearly understands. Here, however, Mirren’s Ida is pursuing Pinkie as vengeance for Fred, and furthermore, because she has a personal relationship with Rose. This is completely overwritten and unneeded, and as a result robs the film of its central theme. What we have here is gelded Brighton Rock. Another example, ironically, is the best scene of the film: Kite’s death. Here we have Piinkie witness the knife fight in a whirl of steel, it’s gripping stuff. Unfortunately, it’s also utterly extraneous- Pinkie doesn’t need a personal motivation for killing Hale: he’s both a gangster and a sociopath, that should be enough.
Before I sum up, I’m just going to put the “remake” argument to bed: this 2011 version of Brighton Rock is a remake of the 1947, sorry Joffe, you’re lying, and this is why: (although some parts of the climax and finale are closer to the novel’s end) the final scene of the 1947 film was altered for the film from the book by Greene to specifically get it past the censor at the time. Now, given that this is a new adaptation, apparently, don’t think that you can get away with using the exact same closing fucking scene from the earlier film. To then pretend that it isn’t a remake is insulting to the intelligence. Superficial changes, such as the time movement, and silly changes, such as Ida’s motivation, have the feel for me that they were inserted in a desperate attempt to distance this version from the masterpiece; to avoid the comparison that it could inevitably not live up to. Unfortunately, they feel cosmetic; deliberate and superficial alterations to the material to attempt to distinguish. It’s heavy handed and far, far too unsubtle, too obvious. I haven’t been able to spot the machinations of a writer or director and discern the motive behind something so easily in a long time.
As a result, it does invite comparison to Attenborough’s and I’m sorry to say that in every way the early version is superior. In every way: Attenborough blows Riley away, the support is both superior and properly cast (honourable exception to Serkis’ louche gangster), the atmosphere is far more immersive, the score exceptional, the cinematography better, and, most importantly, the central theme of the film is demonstrably less muddled and as a result more powerful.
Overall, this actually isn’t a bad film. It isn’t boring, and it is well acted. However, it isn’t a very good version of Brighton Rock, fundamentally lacking in power and cohesion. It looks great, and the actors do a good job for the most part, but thinking about it kind of aggravates me. It’s funny, because films from this period could well be ripe for a remake, but not this way: take the story and make it your own, don’t simply attach a load of superficial changes that weaken the narrative and try to pretend that it is a new version. You aren’t fooling anyone, least of all those of us that are familiar with the novel and the original.
I give Brighton Rock (2011) two sticks of tooth destroying Brighton Rock out of 4. A failure as an adaptation and a remake, but not an awful film in its own right. Incidentally, as a frame of reference, I would give both the book and 1947 film a maximum.
Just nobody touch Kind Hearts and Coronets and I’ll be fine.
Until next time,