John Boulting’s 1947 Brighton Rock is considered by many to be the best that British cinema has ever offered the genre of film noir. But while the moody tones, looming silences and frugal dialogue created a spell in the forties, they all seem rather awkward in 2011. Promising débutante Rowan Joffre has faithfully redone the black and white classic (with a switch of decade) but the whole project just seems a bit pointless and uninspired.
While this is by no means a technical disaster, you have to wonder what creative merit can be found in such a blatant rehashing. There are more re-imaginings, revamps and re-whatevers about at the moment than there are pebbles on Brighton’s beach. Such projects usually make protestations about finding ‘fresh’ angles which are usually tenuous at best, but simply bringing Graham Greene’s paean of young gansterhood to a vaguely different time period and essentially re-doing it, is mystifying. In the garage of film regurgitation, the remake is normally the most uninspirational vehicle.
Aside from the obvious time-shift (Pinkie and his crew now inhabit the seaside town during 1964, an era of youthful liberation and Mod/Rocker battles) the differences between Boulting’s masterpiece and this version are subtle, but jarring. Sam Riley plays Pinkie, a remorseless young gangster who sees his boss’s murder as a chance to rise to the top of Brighton’s organised crime circuit; however when the police suspect that he stoned a rival to death in a revenge killing, he seduces the girl who can send him to the gallows with her testimony. Helen Mirren and John Hurt star as concerned parties and while they both turn in acceptable performances, they need to stop getting misty-eyed when someone puts any old piece of vaunted British cinema under their nose. The relationship between the psychotic Pinkie and Rose is originally played out with great skill and nuance – such sleight of hand is sadly absent here. Pauses feel unnatural and Pinkie’s antipathy towards his girl seem more obvious than the scar on his cheek. Without the undefinable magic, the central relationship is pretty inexplicable. There wasn’t much by the way of character exposition in the original – indeed there is no explanation of what turned Pinkie to violent crime at such a tender age – but while such mystery was worked expertly by Richard Attenborough, that ship seems to have well and truly sailed by the time that Sam Riley boards it.
Reminding you of a scowling cross between Orlando Bloom and a hatless Pete Doherty, the leading man does a decent job of recreating the remorseless gangster but he really is on to a hiding to nothing. He is not helped by Andrea Louise Riseborough who adds little to the part of Rose apart from the suspicion that her character might be bi-polar as she shrieks before falling silent like a girl from an exorcism film. Unrequited love is famously one of the most difficult things to bring to life on screen, but she is given nothing to work with by Joffre, who shows little of his considerable screen-writing talent. The whole film pivots around this romance (or lack thereof) but there’s no depth or indeed any enticing ambiguity, just plain disbelief.