Till Death Us Do Part
This business of cinema remakes is ticklish. Domestic copies of hits subtitled from abroad mostly lose the original’s edge, whereas retooled homegrown stuff depends more on starpower than improvement or newness. Brighton Rock, film/stage/television writer Rowan Joffe’s first feature, is presented as an “adaptation” of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel rather than a “remake” of the 1947 film.
Indeed, it would be effrontery to attempt to better the original with its towering twenty-four-year-old Richard Attenborough (to whom Joffe’s credits render thanks) as repulsive seventeen-year-old Pinkie Brown. Author Greene had written several hundred film reviews and, called in for the second rewrite – co-writer Terence Rattigan insisted his own contribution was minuscule -- updated the story from the ‘30s to postwar while keeping intact his usual Catholic concerns, with the British Board of Film Censors insisting on a less gross ending, hence the sappy final sound of a phonograph record sticking and repeating.
A convert to the Roman Church in order to marry the woman he loved, Greene favored parables of sinners who dread the damnation they recognize. Whether Pinkie (Sam Riley) also does so is debatable, despite platitudes muttered here and there. In the title’s tacky resort town, here shifted to a 1964 Britain of rebellious youth, two rival gangs vie for control, much of it in protection money from bookies like dapper Phil Corkery (John Hurt) even though -- a possible anachronism -- off-track betting had been voted legal a year before. Swell Colleoni (Andy Serkis) runs a dandyish posh operation, whereas Kite’s (Geoff Bell) thugs are headquartered in a seedy row house with its payphone in the hallway. When Kite is done in, older Frank Spicer (Phil Davis) assumes control and sends Pinkie, Dallow (Nonso Anozie), and Cubitt (Craig Parkinson) to deal with the killer, Frederick “Fred” Hale (Sean Harris), short of killing him.
However, Kite’s protégé Pinkie wants ultimate revenge on his father-figure’s executioner. Fleeing his fate, Hale appeals for getaway cash to his friend Ida Arnold (Helen Mirren), proprietress of an upscale tea room, and, that failed, clings to a plain-Jane waitress of Ida’s on her break. Along with Spicer, he and she (Andrea Riseborough, as Rose Wilson) are inconveniently caught in a flash photo by a Pom Pom’s Picture Palace promotion photographer. After Hale’s hash is settled, Pinkie is sent after the photo receipt in Rose’s pocket. The amoral punk swings a date with the young woman and recovers receipt and compromising photo, but, otherworldly innocent and unloved, she falls for him.
So that viewers know Ida’s thoughts, she confides in longtime friend Phil, as this no-nonsense restaurant owner puts two and two together to connect baby-faced Pinkie with Fred’s death; determined not to fail her female employee after having fatally turned down Fred’s request, she is out to stop Pinkie and spare Rose.
Realizing that even dull Rose has caught on, and, because a wife cannot be obliged to testify against a husband, Pinkie bargains with her shameful father (Steve Evets) for parental permission for the underage girl, and marries the woman who swears never to betray him and go wherever he goes.
This being when and where it is, no guns. Beatings are administered with rocks or knuckle-dusters or faces are disfigured with acid, but the weapon of choice is the shiv or switchblade, to wound mortally or to slice and scar a cheek, as happens to Pinkie (the uncensored 1940s American release was titled Young Scarface).
The film avoids the cheap path of overwhelming period pop, though its own mood-establishing score is heavy-handed. Palace Pier amusements and the seaside resort setting are spot-on in this tale of damnation or redemption. As antihero with no redeeming qualities, Riley is slick-haired shallow but unfortunately also one-note, an expressionless DiCaprio; Riseborough’s part is a tough one, and she never emerges as more than a she-victim instead of a shy teenager. Veterans Mirren and Hurt are a bit broad in interpreting their wiser, older heads but are still worth it.
A screening audience was evenly divided between those who were pleased with this new Brighton Rock and those who dismissed it. Not a thriller, whodunit or fully a noir, it’s better than some, worse than others.
(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)