Brighton Rock

Sam Riley resists going back on set.

Sam Riley resists going back on set.

(2010) Thriller (IFC) Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Helen Mirren, Andy Serkis, John Hurt, Nonso Anozie, Sean Harris, Philip Davis, Craig Parkinson, Geoff Bell, Steven Robertson, Maurice Roëves, Steve Evets, Francis Magee, Adrian Schiller, Pauline Melville, Mona Goodwin, Kerrie Hayes, Lexy Howe, Harry Lloyd-Walker, Dennis Banks, Helen Kingston. Directed by Rowan Joffe

Good and evil are meant to balance each other out. You can’t have one without the other; they are opposing forces, a yin and yang of morality as it were. And as such, they often attract one another.

Pinkie Brown (Riley) is a gangster wanna-be. He is vicious and calculating, sometimes cruel and absolutely without any morality. He meets waitress Rose (Riseborough) in the restaurant of a grand hotel in Brighton and walks her down the pier, passing by a thug from a rival gang. Pinkie goes back afterwards and kills the thug. Later Rose realizes that she saw the man whose picture has been published by the newspapers.

Ida (Mirren), the manager of the restaurant and surrogate mother to Rose, warns Rose away from Pinkie. As it turns out, she is very well acquainted by men of his ilk. She enlists the aid of her friend Corkery (Hurt) to help Rose out, but he has other worries, one of them being Pinkie’s boss, the urbane but evil Colleoni (Serkis). When Rose gets married to Pinkie, she no longer can testify that Pinkie was in the vicinity of the murder victim. Can that be the only reason that Pinkie married Rose? Or does the gangster actually have a heart?

Graham Greene wrote the novel this movie was based on back in 1938, at the height of prohibition in the United States and the golden age of gangsters and in some ways the tropes of that era carry over not only in the novel (as you would expect being a product of those times) but here as well. In order to distance the film from those tropes – and from the English noir movie that starred a young Richard Attenborough as Pinkie – Joffe elected to set this version about 25 years after the novel was set, in an era when Mods and Rockers were rioting in Brighton. It’s actually a bit of a brilliant move; the era was evocative (as captured by the Who in Quadrophenia) and appeals more to filmgoers today than perhaps the pre-war era would. The translation between eras is spot-on, particularly since the filmmakers captured the 1960s Brighton so well.

Riley is an actor better-known to admiring critics than he is to the general moviegoing public and that’s a shame; in my opinion he’s one of the best actors working today. He has an amazing intensity and the ability to take on vastly different roles while retaining his own style which is no easy task, I can tell you. I’ve sometimes thought of him as a Johnny Depp without the mannerisms and that’s about as close as you’re going to get.

I think because his looks are more unconventional than traditionally hunk-ish or handsome he has largely been ignored by American filmmakers and audiences, which shows a deep shallowness on our part. I have seen him in movies where he is the only good thing about them and so good was he that he was worth seeing all by his lonesome. If some artsy-fartsy pretentious douche hipster filmmaker decided to make a Dadaist version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – or worse, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment – as a one-man show, if that one man was Riley I’d go see it anyway.

The rest of the cast is pretty terrific; Mirren is another actress whose presence in a film is all  the recommendation I need to go see it. Hurt is a veteran character actor who brings rumpled gravitas to the role, and Serkis is serpentine as the gangster in a smoking jacket, an ape in a velvet coat.

There is a thin veneer of civility over the violence which can come suddenly and shockingly which I found fascinating. However, one of the movie’s great flaws is a curious lifeless feeling to it; there’s little energy, as if the actors are all sleep-deprived. Riley is the lone exception although even he at times seems somnolent. Perhaps that was an effect the filmmakers were intentionally trying to create?

One of the major plot points is that both Pinkie and Rose are teens, but curiously Joffe (who wrote the screen adaptation) chose to bury that particular lede; it’s a major plot point but I get the sense that he presumes you know it already (note to Joffe: not everyone read the book). It does eventually get revealed, sort of, but by then it changes the dynamic tremendously and unnecessarily. I would have wished that Joffe made this salient point clear from the get-go, but again, that’s just me.

Other than suffering from script obfuscation, the writing is actually pretty good most of the time and the acting, despite the odd lack of inertia, is top notch. I would have liked to have rated this higher (and some critics did) but I just wasn’t inspired to like it any more than a mediocre, middle-of-the-pack number. In this case, the sum of the parts is much greater than the whole.

WHY RENT THIS: Riley is intense. Great period depiction. Terrific cast.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit muddled. Curious lack of energy. Omits a crucial story point early on needlessly.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of rough language, a fair amount of violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second adaptation of the Graham Greene novel; the first was made in 1947.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Mostly standard, but there are some interesting interviews with the principle cast and crew.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.8M on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental and Steaming), iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Krays
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Films 4 Foodies begins!

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