Though based on what’s known as Graham Greene’s first “Catholic” novel, Rowan Joffe’s adaptation of “Brighton Rock”—the second film version of the book, following John Boulting’s 1947 version—minimizes the book’s strong religious subtext in favor of its gangster-thriller surface. To be sure, it retains some “Roman” qualities—the two lead characters are identified as Catholic, and symbols and precepts of the faith are occasionally employed. But they’re pushed into the background, while in the source they’re often in the reader’s face, and so the story as a microcosm for the eternal struggle between good and evil is pretty much lost.
What’s left is a more small-scaled tale of a brutal, malevolent young gangster named Pinkie (Sam Riley) who romances Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a naïve and homely waitress he actually despises, because she can connect him to a murder. Joffe has also altered the chronology of the piece, situating it in 1964, when clashes between Mods and Rockers provide a colorful (and violent) backdrop to the narrative, which is still centered around the pier in the titular seaside vacation town (which also gives its name to the tubular hard candy that is the title).
Pinkie is an utter scoundrel, who kills sleazy Freddie Hale (Sean Harris), a member of the much larger gang headed by the suavely menacing Colleoni (Andy Serkis), after Hale had accidentally stabbed Pinkie’s boss Kite (Geoff Bell) to death in a street brawl—getting his face scarred in the process. (That introductory scene is actually drawn from Greene’s earlier 1936 novel, “This Gun for Hire,” to which “Brighton Rock” is a kind of sequel.) He also aims to take Kite’s place, shunting aside his older rival Spicer (Phil Davis). But to keep the cops at bay he must deal with the danger posed by Rose, who clumsily had her picture taken with Hale and Spicer by a boardwalk photographer right before the murder, while simultaneously negotiating a deal with Colleoni.
His nemesis is Ida (Helen Mirren), who in this version is Rose’s employer in a pier-side tea shop, determined to save the hapless girl from Pinkie’s malign influence. But he’s a canny conniver, convincing the poor soul to marry him in order to prevent her from being compelled to tell what she knows of the murder—and doing so in a civil ceremony that, he tells her, constitutes a mortal sin that undermines her religious beliefs as well.
Joffe’s effort to endow the picture with a noirish style occasionally comes at the expense of narrative clarity, but otherwise it—and his streamlining of the plot, which doesn’t just jettison much of this religious underpinning but gives the characters closer connections from the beginning—work pretty well, though the result is more pulpish exercise than the examination of moral issues that Greene fashioned. Like the 1947 film, moreover, it radically softens the novel’s harsh ending by incorporating a twist that could be called a minor miracle.
Still, there’s a gritty gangland pulse to the piece, as well as strong performances by Mirren, who makes Ida a strong-willed adversary; John Hurt, as her long-time friend (and, in another change from Greene, a last-act paramour); Davis, who makes Spicer a pitiable old-timer; and the deliciously oily Serkis. Unfortunately, the leads aren’t as satisfying. Riley is too old to be convincing as a boy of 17, but more importantly his impassivity never fully conveys the character’s intense cruelty (except in one of the work’s most clever moments—the scene in the recording booth). And Riseborough works too hard at Rose’s klutzy ways and neediness in a performance that in the end seems mannered rather than real.
Still, the kick of Greene’s material remains mostly in place even if his larger ideas are not, and the picture has a polished look, courtesy of production designer James Merifield, art director Paul Ghirardani, costumer Julian Day and cinematographer John Mathiesen, who makes the Eastbourne locations authentically seedy. The film doesn’t capture the whole of Greeneland, but at least portrays one aspect of it reasonably well.