Who would you rate as the greatest villain in British cinema? Christopher Lee’s count in Dracula? Alex in A Clockwork Orange? Begbie in Trainspotting? They’re all iconically creepy, but few compare with the deadly duo played by Richard Attenborough: the serial killer John Christie in 1971’s 10 Rillington Place, and the psychopathic razor-boy Pinkie Brown, who marauds 1930s Kemp Town in 1947’s Brighton Rock.
Well, good news: Pinkie’s back! Sam Riley plays the murderer in writer Rowan Joffe’s directing debut, a Dhs47 million ‘remix’ of the classic noir tale, the ’40s version of which was adapted by Graham Greene and Terence Rattigan from Greene’s own 1938 novel. According to Riley, who is best known for playing Ian Curtis in Joy Division-flick Control, his Pinkie is more mean, violent, religiously confused and romantically anxious. Arguably, he’s prettier, too.
Directors as diverse as the Hughes brothers and Scorsese are said to have tried and failed to remake John Boulting’s walk with love and death through the ‘dark alleyways and festering slums’ of Greene’s pre-war Brighton on England’s south coast. However, Joffe, the writer of The American, is not the fool rushing in where angels fear to tread.
Widespread consensus says, probably rightly, that a contemporary version of Greene’s book wouldn’t work, not least because of Pinkie’s Catholic obsession with hell and the innocence of his waitress girlfriend Rose, whom he marries so that she can’t testify against him. But these days extramarital relations and violence are more palatable, and both were strong features of the novel that were downplayed in the first film – albeit insufficiently to satisfy the US censors, who delayed its release for four years.
Joffe sets his new version in the mid-’60s – in one scene, parka-clad, Vespa-riding mods are seen fighting rockers across the pier-front in a reenactment of the 1964 Brighton riots. The times were a-changing, but the death penalty hadn’t yet been abolished in the UK (that came later, in 1965) so the threat of eternal hell still resonates powerfully with Pinkie.
By 1964 the modern woman hadn’t arrived, but she was on her way. There are traces of her in Helen Mirren’s excellent, assertive, confident Ida, who in this version is not a barfly gossip but the ‘tart that runs Snows’, the silver-service cafeteria where Rose waits tables. She represents a sort of feminist take on the supposedly sexist writer’s novel.
Greene’s book took great interest in the milieu of his characters, an element Joffe is happy to exploit. Café-nostalgics will love it: characters are always sipping cuppas on ’50s Formica tabletops. The decor, set design and location work is one of the glories of this new Brighton Rock, cohabiting the old with the new. The talent that cinematographer John Mathieson showed for desaturated seediness in Love Is the Devil is also present in the peeling, rented rooms inhabited by Spicer (Phil Davis), Dallow (Nonso Anozie) and the other lowlife gang members over whom Pinkie has taken control.
So what is this new version? A Brit gangster flick? A hard-boiled period neo-noir? A psychological or detective thriller? An entertainment? There are elements of all four, but Joffe has suggested he is aiming for something more – romantic tragedy. He has taken the references to Rose’s sainthood at the end of Greene’s novel, the grandeur of her suffering, and chosen to flesh out her character. In that sense this Brighton Rock is Rose’s story, not Pinkie’s, and that gives it a specific emotional charge.
Andrea Riseborough gives it her all as Rose in a tough role: at first, she is hesitant and awkward, not innocent like Carol Marsh in the 1947 film, but as the story unfolds she achieves a notable pathos, if not quite the tragic grandeur Joffe is hoping for.
All in all, this new Brighton Rock is a decent reimagining, lightened by some cameos (we cherish Andy Serkis’s Corleoni, spouting ‘restless youth: the ravaged and disrupted territory between the two eternities!’ as he spins a spoon in boredom), gentle anachronisms (Anozie’s Dallow uses the lingo of modern London) and casting liberties (Riley may be well preserved but, at 30, stripped of clothes, he doesn’t look 17). The film may not be an instant classic, but it’s an impressive – and enjoyable – debut.
Brighton Rock is in UAE cinemas now.