Brighton Rock is a slow-burning dramatic thriller about misguided love and passionate hate. Taken from Graham Greene’s classic 1938 novel of the same name, the film is set on the shores of 1960s Brighton, a picturesque British seaside town with a pier as iconic as the large sticks of rock candy sold to tourists there.
The film opens when a man is killed by a gang of thugs who work for mob leader Colleoni. The murder is witnessed by young gangster, Pinky (Sam Riley), and the victim is his mentor, which sets the stage for an onslaught of revenge.
But the real story unfolds when it introduces a young girl, Rose (Andrea Riseborough), who unknowingly gets caught in the middle of a confrontation and finds herself being photographed by the pier’s souvenir photographer. Pinky knows what he has to do—destroy the photographic evidence that implicates his gang and do something about this girl who witnessed it.
He slyly chooses to pursue Rose romantically, and she falls for his meager charms with no major effort on his part. It only takes a single date and a dance under the striped tent-like ceiling of the pier dance hall to see that Rose is lost in his love spell, allowing herself to be swept up in the hopes of a better life with this man she doesn’t know.
Yet, Brighton Rock is not really a story about gangsters or love—it’s about Pinky, a twisted young villain with no way out.
Where Rose shows naïveté, Pinky shows a wickedness beyond his years. Rose is helpless, sweet and terribly young, while Pinky is nothing other than a sinister predator. His warped view of affection is demonstrated perfectly as he plays “Loves Me, Loves Me Not” with a spider, plucking its legs off while reciting the romantic lines.
Rose stands by Pinky throughout, even as the web of murder and lies gets more complicated and more dangerous, continuing to defend him to her concerned boss, Ida (Helen Mirren). And while Pinky and Rose are both “Romans,” as he calls it, he even steals her hope of salvation from the Catholic Church as he drags deeper still her into his world. “You’re good and I’m bad—we’re made for each other,” he tells her.
There are glimmers of a soul in Pinky, but whether he’s truly rotten through-and-through or merely ignoring the fragments of goodness in himself, that soul remains hidden. His fight does not even seem to revolve around money or his stake in the mob, but simply around staying alive. He’s angry, vengeful and violent, but one gets the feeling this all comes from a deep fear of losing “the game.”
One of the film’s most stunning scenes is when a small army of Vespas parade into town, leading up to a climactic riot of the Mods and Rockers along the pier. This historic clash is only a small subplot of the film, and one that is unique to this version, but it adds to the tension and furthers the message of a continuing war between Old and New. It also gives a nice backdrop behind which the gangsters can escape, as Pinky betrays his comrade Spicer to Colleoni, only to find the mob coming after him as well.
Brighton Rock was both written for the screen and directed by Rowan Joffe. Joffe is best known for his previous screenwriting (The American, 28 Weeks Later), and Brighton Rock is his first theatrical feature film.
Together with veteran cinematographer John Mathieson (X-Men: First Class, Gladiator), Joffe makes this film absolutely sing with its stunning shots, angles and carefully orchestrated vignettes. Even viewers who don’t initially get into the storyline will lose themselves to the visual smorgasbord from Mathieson’s adept hands. Each scene is meticulously staged, gently painting canvases of the pier in an eerie fog, dark shadows and silhouettes behind closed doors, and characters bathed in golden natural light.
Look for more performances from the mesmerizing Sam Riley—if Brighton Rock is any indication of what’s to come, he is an actor about to catch fire. His looks and mannerisms in this film resemble some twisted combination of Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio. Likewise, Andrea Riseborough plays Rose with a tender innocence tricky to portray for an actress closer to 30 than 16. She’s previously appeared in films like Never Let Me Go and Made in Dagenham.
Andy Serkis plays the cameo role of the big bad mob leader Colleoni. John Hurt offers wit and wisdom throughout as Phil, and Helen Mirren as Ida, of course, steals every scene in which she appears. Mirren also, for perhaps the first time, allows the camera to show her age, which adds a whole new dimension to her gritty character.
This is the second time Brighton Rock has been turned into a film—the first version was made in 1947 (unfortunately re-titled Young Scarface for American audiences) and featured Richard Attenborough as Pinky.
Brighton Rock tells a timeless story, a sadly beautiful story, and the craftsmanship in which it is shared will leave its viewers with a collection of poignant imagery for a long time to come.