Mod Film Noir: ‘Brighton Rock’

Brighton Rock is no confection; it’s a gritty, complex tale awash in murky morality, Machiavellian motives and multiple murders. Grim as its subject matter may be, the film is an outstanding achievement.

To make the film, writer/director Rowan Joffe (whose previous writing credits include The American and 28 Weeks Later) adapted Graham Greene’s 1938 novel of the same name. Brighton Rock is the story of Pinkie (Sam Riley, Control), a 17-year-old thug looking to become a big-time gangster in the eponymous seaside resort town. Following an unintentional murder, Pinkie seeks to silence a possible witness, the teenage Rose (Andrea Riseborough, Made in Dagenham; WE), by winning her affections. Meanwhile, pressures from within his own gang, from local crime boss Colleoni (Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes; The Adventures of Tintin) and from concerned local businesswoman, Ida (Oscar-winner Helen Mirren), threaten to thwart Pinkie’s plans.

Not surprisingly given its cast, Brighton Rock showcases praiseworthy performances. Riley’s portrayal of the brooding, manipulative Pinkie is chilling, while Riseborough’s heartfelt interpretation of the self-destructively loyal Rose stirs empathy. Serkis is drippingly arrogant as the immovably powerful racketeer Colleoni. And Mirren, as Ida, is the picture of steadfast courage in the face of injustice, remaining unflappable even when various wide boys waggle their flick-knives under her chin.

Rose’s unshakable devotion to the seething Pinkie is bemusing, both in the film and in Greene’s novel. One could attribute Rose’s love for Pinkie to the impetuousness of youth, the power of infatuation, the enticing nature of forbidden fruit; that, or Rose may simply want to escape her disinterested — and likely alcoholic — father.

There’s also a theological undercurrent; Rose and Pinkie are devout Roman Catholics, and Rose may have set herself the task of saving Pinkie’s soul. Whatever the motivations, the nature of a complex story and its characters often leaves nagging questions. Perhaps an answer lurks in a scene in the film where, oblivious to a downpour, Pinkie passionately declares to Rose, “You’re good and I’m bad. We’re meant for each other.”

In his adaptation, writer/director Joffe remains quite loyal to the source text, although with one vital, inspired alteration: Rather than setting the film in the late ‘30s, Joffe places his Brighton Rock in 1964. This ingenious change puts Pinkie in the midst of much more defined teenage subcultures; specifically, the mods and the rockers. In fact, Joffe uses the May 1964 mods-versus-rockers riot in Brighton as a chaotic and cacophonous cover for one of the film’s acts of murder. That historical moment provides a far more menacing backdrop than the mundane cover Greene provided in his original text: the sounds of a train departing a station.

The presence of mods and rockers also accentuates just how isolated Pinkie is from his peers. Although Pinkie dresses the part of a mod and even pilfers a scooter, he is only a mod by proxy; when Pinkie peers through the window of a local café that serves as a teen hangout, he is literally and figuratively on the outside looking in.

Lastly, although importantly, 1964 was the final year execution by hanging was conducted in Britain; capital punishment was abolished in 1969. Even as Pinkie mires himself in cover-ups à la Lady Macbeth, he is forced to reckon carefully, if only out of a cynical motivation to save his own neck.

Joffe’s use of light and dark, his immersion of the viewer in the underworld of extortion and numbers-running, and his mise-en-scène of rotating electric fans and papered-over windows help provide all the trappings for what Brighton Rock exemplifies: an excellent modern-day film noir. The opening sequence of the film, featuring portentous foghorn blasts and aerial shots of rolling waves, elicits comparisons to another contemporary noir thriller, Shutter Island.

The DVD is packed with extras that celebrate the work that went into Brighton Rock. Extras include interviews with Joffe and with producer Paul Webster. Nine principal cast members — naturally including Riley, Riseborough and Mirren — are also interviewed. A featurette provides a tightly edited overview of the film (minus any spoilers) plus highlights from the aforementioned interviews. And a behind-the-scenes reel gives viewers an on-set look at the making of several key sequences in the film, most notably a visually stunning parade of Vespa and Lambretta motorscooters along Brighton’s King’s Road, shot from multiple angles with fixed roadside cameras and a truck-mounted crane camera.

RATING 8 / 10