Graham Greene created a chilling portrait of a young gangster Pinkie Brown in his novel, “Brighton Rock.” He also co wrote the landmark 1947 noir British film that starred a young Richard Attenborough as the calculating and sadistic Brown. Remaking such an iconic story is no easy task, but first-time director Roland Joffe has gathered a stellar cast of new stars and veteran British thespians like John Hurt and Helen Mirren and gives the story a fresh twist to make this new cinema version equally compelling.
FOR THE RECORD: This story has been updated to reflect a photo caption change.
Set in the faded seaside town of Brighton (the title refers to its local brand of hard candy) with its rocky shoreline, grimy pubs, prim tea houses and an imposing pier where day trippers crowd its amusement side shows, Joffe has wisely updated the original setting from post World War II to 1964. It’s a time when Britain’s youth are flexing their new-found muscle, and mods and rockers on scooters and motorcycles scarily gather violent flash mobs (without the benefit of social media), terrorizing residents and smashing store fronts.
Into this setting of disaffected youth comes the troubled Pinkie (played with dark relish by up-and-coming British actor Sam Riley). He is part of a small-time gang that hustles local store owners for so called “protection” money. They wear smart suits and instead of guns, they carry flick knives and bottles of acid. When the leader of the gang, and father figure to Pinkie, is murdered by a rival, the young thug will stop at nothing to seek revenge and consolidate his power.
Pinkie has no respect for any kind of old-time gang etiquette, even challenging the authority of the local mob chief (played with flare by Andy Serkis, current “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” star).
His looming turf war is nearly derailed by a local waitress Rose (Andrea Riseborough), who unwittingly finds herself in the center of a pier-side rumble and in an unfortunate twist of fate, is snapped alongside Pinkie’s accomplice by a seaside photographer, who gives her the ticket to the photo. Pinkie decides his only choice is to seduce the naive young girl and win her trust.
It’s Rose that really gives the heart to this story. With an uncaring father at home, she is immediately intoxicated by Pinkie’s slimy charms, and for a time he even seems to be sidelined by her complete innocence and total dedication to him. Riley and Roseborough are both excellent in their interplay. On the one hand, could Pinkie possibly repent; while Rose, increasingly aware of Pinkie’s sinister motives, benignly accepts her fate.
There may be a generational change afoot, but it’s the wisdom of age that is the only chance for redemption in this tale of good vs. evil. It’s up to town veterans, store owner John Hurt and Helen Mirren as Ida, the blowzy and no nonsense owner of the cafe where Rose is employed, who set out to protect Rose. With her flaming red hair and pencil tight skirts, Ida’s ferocious maternal instincts are more than a match for a young punk wielding false pride and a pocket knife.
Capturing the essence of Greene’s thrilling morality tale, “Brighton Rock,” like the seaside resort it relives, has the antiquated charm of an old school cinema classic mixed with the fresh face of gripping British drama.