The old saw that great novels never make great movies has some pretty robust evidence on its side. But Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s compact masterpiece of a gangland thriller, at least gives rise to consistently decent ones. The 1947 John Boulting version is a satisfyingly well-crafted movie-movie, with a script co-authored by Greene, gritty location shooting, and Richard Attenborough’s chilling performance as the psychopathic gangster Pinkie Brown. Now, Rowan Joffé (the son of The Mission’s Roland Joffé, making his writing and directing debut) has remade Greene’s novel in a streamlined modern version, with a little more explicit violence thrown in—and, unfortunately, a few of the best character and story details left out. This Brighton Rock (IFC Films) doesn’t live up to the greatness of the novel (or even, really, the very-goodness of the 1947 movie), but it doesn’t betray Greene’s book either, which may be all a reasonable reader and filmgoer could ask.
One place the movie excels is in invoking the novel’s bleak, foreboding atmosphere: the shabby boardwalk attractions and drab boardinghouse bedrooms of an economically depressed resort town on the English coast. Joffé has updated the setting to the early 1960s, with the youth riots of that time providing historical color and a vaguely thematized aura of social breakdown.
Under the boardwalk one gray morning, Pinkie Brown (Leonardo DiCaprio lookalike Sam Riley), a small-time hood barely out of his teens, kills rival gang member Fred Hale (Sean Harris). The last person to see Hale alive was Ida (Helen Mirren), the blowsy proprietress of a boardwalk cafe. Though she lacks the evidence to go to the police, Ida starts to suspect Pinkie and his gang of Fred’s murder, especially after her newly hired waitress, Rose (Andrea Riseborough), falls in with the surly young thug.
But Pinkie’s apparent interest in Rose is only a means of keeping this sheltered Catholic girl quiet about what little she knows of the murder. Whereas the 1947 version focused on the character of the justice-seeking, life-loving Ida, this remake concentrates on Pinkie and Rose’s grimly unromantic courtship. Every word he says to her is a lie, and not a particularly convincing one. The only thing the two share is their devout Roman Catholicism: “Of course there’s a hell,” Pinkie snarls, with dead eyes that make it clear he’s already living there. Riley and Riseborough skillfully, and at times painfully, show us the ties that bind this doomed couple—coldly calculated self-interest on his side, spaniel-like devotion on hers—even if the last scene lays on the Catholic symbolism a bit thick.
It pains me to say anything even remotely negative about Helen Mirren, but a part of me wishes she’d dug down deeper into her character’s cheerfully brazen sluttiness. It may have been the director’s decision as much as Mirren’s to tone down Ida’s larger-than-life mannerisms. (In the novel, and as portrayed by Hermione Baddeley, she’s forever leading barroom sing-alongs and getting maudlin over mugs of stout.) Mirren delivers a powerful performance as the steel-willed, soft-hearted Ida (and gets to throw a little sexual heat at the unlikely target of John Hurt), but her character’s motivation for going to such lengths to save her new employee remains abstract. The story needs a flamboyant force for good to counterbalance the centripetal pull of Pinkie’s ruthless evil.
All in all, this new Brighton Rock strikes me as a minor but effective exercise in neo-noir style. There would be worse things to do with your summer evening than to go see this moody little crime melodrama. But there’d be better ones, too—like staying in to watch the Attenborough original (now available streaming on Amazon) or, better yet, locking the door and going to bed with Greene’s searing, unforgettable book.