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,

Jarv.

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

32 responses to “Made in Britain: Brighton Rock (2011)”

  1. Jarv says :

    To be absolutely clear about what I’m referring to as the give away remake scene. I’ll invisitext it, but you’ll see what I’m talking about.

    The novel finishes with a pregnant Rose talking to an old man about how she has to make the unborn child “a saint”. She walks out in to the street to retrieve the phonograph message, which is the “worst horror of all”. She is about to be punished for her moral failings, but here is the road to redemption.

    In the 1947 film, it famously ends with Rose listening to Pinkie’s Phonograph record with a scratch on it so it plays “I love you” over and over again. She isn’t pregnant though, thankfully, yet she has a conversion and sees the light in the presence of a nun: her redemption is complete.

    The 2011 version has rose up the duff in a hospital run by nuns. She listens to the message which sticks on I Love You.

    Now, the reason this is the giveaway, is that Greene knew the end of the novel was mean-spirited (fantastic, but it is), and as such he could not get it past the censor. Therefore, he rewrote it to finish on Rose’s beatified face as she listens to I Love You over and over again with tears runing down her cheeks. This is unique to the 1947 adaptation, and at no place happens in the book.

    So, for Joffe to take this sequence, which is NOT from the novel at all, has a clear cinematic non literary reason for existing, and insert it into the film means that he quite obviously isn’t adapting the novel, he’s remaking the film. An equivalent would be to remake Clockwork Orange and leave the end off a la Kubrick.

    Superficial alterations that basically make no difference do not cut it when there is a tell as big as that one there.

    • Jarv says :

      Incidentally, by the way, I am fine with Brighton Rock being both re-adapted and remade, but this is mendacious crap to pretend it isn’t, and if he hadn’t made this point I wouldn’t have bothered refuting it.

      • Bartleby says :

        I’d probably rate this about the same, maybe a little less, because it just feels so pointless. It’s not a bad movie, that’s true, but if I had never read the book or saw the much superior 47 version, I’d have a pretty wretched opinion of this story.

        It’s really got no energy of its own at all. And the ending, I suppose, is gotten off the hook by taking one different element from the book and attaching it to the ending from the old film.

        It just feels like a big waste, actually. I think if you are going to shoot for a close remake adaptation of a book with an existing movie, I think it wold be interesting to put it into the hands of someone who had never seen the earlier film.

        Imagine how some of these things might turn out. This, would, I am sure, be a different and more interesting beast, good or bad, if that had been the case.

      • Jarv says :

        Every change in it is utterly cosmetic. You’re right- it is lifeless.

        I think you’re going to agree with me about TTSS by the way.

  2. Xiphos0311 says :

    Years ago I started reading the book but for some reason, that I don’t remember, I never finished it but I think I liked it well enough. I never knew it was adapted for a movie, I should find the original and check that out.

    • Jarv says :

      The 47 version is fantastic. You’ll never look at the old fart in Jurassic Park the same way. The ending is justifiably famous.

      Career defining film in many ways.

      I was going to do an original v remake series, and lots of that survives in this.

      This isn’t hateful or anything- it’s like TTSS: just there without doing anything exceptional.

      If anything, it’s marginally better than TTSS, but they’re both just utterly meh.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        I always think of Attanborough as the director of A Bridge Too Far and A Chorus Line and the actor from The Great Escape, Sand Pebbles and Flight of the Phoenix and that’s just off the top of my head. Has there been a more successful actor/writer out there then Attanborough? Eastwood maybe? but only in the broadest sense.

      • Bartleby says :

        Xi, John Huston was pretty damn good too.

      • Jarv says :

        Cronenberg?

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        John Huston now that’s a good call. If you want to torture my idea past the point of breaking then David Lean qualifies.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        I never knew Cronenberg did any acting until you mentioned him.

      • Jarv says :

        He’s more of a schlock actor.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        Yeah I think Wells qualifies but his later production is markedly uneven while Attanbourgh stayed mostly on the good side of things.

      • Jarv says :

        Wells.

        D’oh.

        Hitchcock? Was in every single one of his own films.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        Wasn’t most of Hitchcock’s stuff cameos? Not that I’m downing cameos I’m trying to remember if he did more then just walk on bits. Except for his TV show intros I can’t place any big scenes with him.

      • Jarv says :

        Not even that. He’d be in the crowd or something. It was just something he did.

        I was just seeing how far it could be stretched.

        Ben Affleck if he keeps going.

      • Continentalop says :

        Well Orson had to eat.

        I guess we should add Chaplin and Truffaut.

        Oh, and maybe in 10-20 years Ben Affleck.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        Affleck definitely has that potential. He’s a decent actor who has gotten better as he got older and has made two excellent movies but I think he needs to move out of Boston and away from crime flicks. That’s when we’ll see what he has in the tank as a director.

      • Bartleby says :

        I think I’d like to see Ben Affleck take on The Stand. That would be an interesting challenge. Maybe too ambitious and far out though.

        I agree, I don’t want to see him just do Boston crime flicks, though to be fair, he’s only done 2 and he’s quite good at them.

      • koutchboom says :

        As long as he type cast his brother and casts him as the creepy rapest.

      • Continentalop says :

        I was going to agree with Xi when I just started to think “why should he leave Boston crime movies?” I mean, Ford did pretty much only Westerns, Chaplin comedies and Hitchcock suspense movies and no one doubts their directing skills.

        Some people just thrive in one area. Maybe with Affleck it is that he can make really good Boston crime flicks.

  3. Continentalop says :

    I’m still going to see this, just like I’m still going to see TTSS. I can’t resist “classy” suspense stuff like this, and I’m too big of Graham Greene fan to avoid it.

    • Jarv says :

      This isn’t bad, nor is TTSS. Just both suffer in comparison to their sources, and both are utterly meh.

      Classy, well acted, solidly directed, totally redundant and in the case of TTSS, a bit dull.

  4. Just Pillow Talk says :

    Sounds like if you have no basis of comparison (book or original movie), this could be a decent watch.

    I watched The Town again the other day…that movie is so fucking solid it’s ridiculous. Affleck owned that movie from both sides of the camera.

    • Jarv says :

      No, I think you do need to know the story, because what’s presented here misses the crux of the novel by a long way, and it comes across as just a superficial gangster flick.

      • Just Pillow Talk says :

        But you say it fails as a “Brighton Rock” movie, but it sounds like it still succeeds as a gangster movie, maybe not a great one, but a good one.

        Different genre and whatnot, but Conan the Barbarian fails as a Conan adaption but succeeds as a sword and sandals flick. Doesn’t this one succeed as a gangster flick if you ignore the title?

      • Jarv says :

        No.

        The problem is that they keep a lot of the meat of the Brighton Rock story, and attempt to thematically shoe-horn in a lot of stuff to make the themes from the novel fit- vast swathes of it come straight from the book.

        It isn’t exciting or violent enough to be a proper gangster flick- it would be an essentially boring one. The Catholicism stuff is integral to the story, and they botch it badly.

      • Droid says :

        Pinky’s obsessed with his fate, which stems directly from Catholicism and forms his character and a lot of his decision making. Anything to avoid the long drop to the furnace. If that’s not applied to the character then he’s just a plain old sociopath.

      • Jarv says :

        He’s just a sociopath.

        It also completely botches Ida, who is, if anything, more important in that she provides the counterpoint being purely materialistic but pursuing Pinkie because it is the right thing to do. It was a catastrophic mistake to have her and Hale have a history.

  5. ThereWolf says :

    On the one hand I have to admire the balls of a film maker who takes this remake on, with the considerable legend of the 1947 version looming large over it. The cast is great but… Attenborough is Pinky, I just can’t see anyone else.

    I can’t believe Joffe said it wasn’t a remake… and then they do ‘that’ at the end. Maybe he thought no one would notice.

    Can’t wait to see what Zack Snyder does with the ‘Kind Hearts & Coronets’ remake…

    • Jarv says :

      I’m convinced that it can be done though. I think the 60’s wasn’t the right era, if you move it to the modern day, where we’re more secular, Pinkie and Rose’s religion would stand out more and the more debauched Ida doing the right thing because it’s the right thing would stand up in comparison.

      Silly twat- if you’re making an “adaptation” then keep the end from the book. Do not, under any circumstances, do the ICONIC end from the original film and try to pass it off as something new. Foolish.

      If Snyder remakes Kind Hearts, then I swear to god I’ll do something nasty to him.

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