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Review: Brighton Rock (2011)

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Rushing in where angels fear to tread, I found myself in the lobby of the Curzon Soho, awaiting the arrival of Mme. Scenester for an appointment with what may be this year's most anticipated film. Almost 65 years have elapsed since Graham Greene's masterly novel Brighton Rock was made into an excellent film, and where the action was set firmly in the inter-war years the book was set in.

It was therefore with some trepidation that I greeted the news trailed throughout the latter part of last year, that the action had been advanced to the 1960s, although I can report that the setting is secondary to the plot here, with a few omissions and some liberties being taken here and there, it remains largely intact.

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We still have the murder of Fred Hale and the shabby gang who now lack a leader, losing ground rapidly to the local Mr Big, Colleoni. Still present are the young waitress, who could identify the gang member responsible for the killing, and the desperate attempts by the gang to snatch her photographic evidence. It is here that many of the liberties taken begin to have a deleterious effect on what would otherwise still be a compelling story.

The character of Ida Arnold, memorably played in the original film by Hermione Baddeley as a low rent seaside entertainer and superstitious lush, appears to have moved up the social ladder a few notches to become the owner of Snow's Café. It's the sort of role that Helen Mirren can play standing on her head. This also makes her the employer of young waitress Rose, who unwittingly becomes entangled in the affair, and who falls for Pinkie at first sight. The addition of John Hurt as bookmaker Phil Corkery is another 'class act' box ticked, but he has little to do apart from express occasional outrage at the world of the young or gangsters, or accompany Ida on her amateur detective caper to bring Pinkie & Co to justice.

Sam Riley makes a lanky Pinkie Brown, who hints at his menace without ever delivering the full extent of it. His tendency to stare at the floor ahead of him, and freeze his facial expression, suggest an actor who is bored with the role he is playing. It is left to Andrea Riseborough to deliver an emotional charge, with her sympathetic performance as Rose, the girl prepared to follow Pinkie into hell, which makes her the focus of the film, when it should be the amoral gangster and his due punishment.

There I am, complaining about the plot, when what I basically have is a character-led film that seems determined to interfere with an already damn near perfect story to suit the characters. Dialogue is generally cherry-picked from the original Boulting Bros. film, the gang's squalid lodgings and scruffy appearance are also borrowed, but all this plays second fiddle to the characters who are placed for us to identify with, however inappropriate some may seem.

The religious element which was essential to Graham Greene's book, and underpins the whole story, is mentioned here without any attempt to draws parallels between Pinkie's contradictory position as a Roman Catholic believer and his amoral stance as a gangster and killer. The book is littered with religious imagery of such a strong type that could easily have offended the faithful, but is here treated as a throwaway matter of fact.

The social aspect of Pinkie's delinquency appears to have been glossed over, too. We get no idea as to where and how Pinkie grew up, no moral frame of reference. The original text and film both make it explicit that Pinkie has grown up in dire poverty in a criminal neighbourhood, providing a reason, although not an excuse, for his condition. I believe that the reason for this important missing aspect of Pinkie's life is the truly bizarre decision to place the story in the 1960s.

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By transplanting a novel based in the inter-wear years into a decade of unparalleled prosperity, it defuses important elements of the plot. We are left with an empty shell of a story, inside which the characters are forced to act out their roles without hope of any resolution.

Even the Brighton setting is a lie, as Eastbourne body-doubles for Brighton for much of the film, and anyone who knows these towns slightly will have little trouble spotting the deception. I can understand the producer's desire not to have the many Brighton seafront bars which are forever a monument to 90s rave culture, intruding into shot, but weren't several 'Poirot' episodes filmed here, with a believable 1930s setting?

Those of you fond of scooter-spotting will have to ensure you don’t blink in the ride out sequences, as you will only get the briefest glimpses of 60s motor action. The inclusion of mods and rockers engaged in a beach fight seems to have strayed in from left-over Quadrophenia footage.

I could go on and complain about all the other aspects of this film I find out of place, pointless or just plain objectionable, but I’m going to close now. This film has confused artistic license with random meddling. It will, with luck, lead viewers back to the original text, where they will discover a much more satisfying story. 

The Scenester

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