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Brighton Rock | Review

Joffe Sins Unpardonably Against Graham Greene’s Sin-soaked Novel

British producer-director team the Boulting Brothers made a masterly, faithful film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel ‘Brighton Rock’ in 1947; apropos of our morbidly redundant times, we now get first-time director Rowan Joffe’s faithless counterpoint. Overstuffed and overblown, Joffe’s version crucially misreads and ineptly revises Greene’s scintillating story about the competing forces of evil and grace in the materialist 20th century world, represented by England’s seedy seaside resort town of Brighton. Lacking original stylistic ideas, Joffe relies on a mishmash of tired noir visual tricks; he has no sense of tonal balance, directing every scene as if it were a climax. Re-staging the 1938 book in the “mod” ‘60s is as arbitrary as tiresome British theater companies trying to spiff up Macbeth by dressing everyone like Nazis. Broad overacting and a comically bombastic score (the choral pieces seem more appropriate to ‘Lord of the Rings’) round out what comes across as a $20 million student film.

If you are going to re-write Graham Greene, you’d better have vision and conviction. Joffe has neither. Three lame stunt fight scenes in the first half-hour fail to kick-start the needlessly jumbled plot. One torpid, exposition-filled scene after another follows teenage petty gangster Pinkie (hopefully this is just an unfortunate footnote in the compelling Sam Riley’s career) as he battles his way to the top of the two-bit criminal heap. He deceitfully courts and marries introverted waitress Rose just to keep her from testifying against him. When the situation gets dicey, Pinkie figures the sure thing is for Rose to have a little fatal accident. But why does he keep stalling? Could it be … love?

In a disingenuous moral double switch, Joffe romanticizes Pinkie’s criminality, while also commending him for being broken up about it. The audience is meant to root both for his greedy, survival-of-the-fittest success, and for him to give it all up in the end for all the right reasons. Greene, while the screenwriter for such treasures as ‘The Third Man’ and ‘The Fallen Idol,’ was also a long-time, skeptical movie reviewer; he would have laughed, unsurprised, at such a trite eat-your-cake-and-have-it-too fantasy.

If it weren’t for the fact that he cadges its revised ending, added by Greene himself, you’d think Joffe hadn’t bothered to see the 1947 adaptation. Richard Attenborough’s Pinkie was luminous with cruelty, an otherworldly sociopath. He looked at people, including Rose, as if they were insects; Riley is just misunderstood. Joffe’s audience-pandering compromise of the character is evident from the get-go, as an early scene shows Pinkie shakily unable to go through with a murder he’s been tasked with. Joffe imposes phony inner conflict on Pinkie because he thinks it makes him sympathetic; in reality, it makes him incoherent.

Comparing the original movie’s most famous exchange with the new version proves telling. Eyes glimmering with fearful awe, Attenborough gives a vivid account of hell, summing up with, “The atheists have got it all wrong,” Rose gently prods, “There’s a heaven, too.” His dismissive reply: “Maybe.” Attenborough’s Pinkie had as much interest in heaven as he would a doctor’s waiting room; Riley instead uses the line to reassure the audience that, deep down, he wants to be good.

Joffe and Riley have made a cowardly sidestep around the fundamental core of Greene’s character: Pinkie’s a believer. He sins, mortally, repeatedly, in the giddy certainty that each time he further sentences himself to a torturous damnation. The audacity of his risk is spellbinding. Riley, by contrast, only believes when it suits Joffe to have a brooding close-up.

In the ’47 film, Rose is played by doe-eyed non-actor Carol Marsh as an innocent, a girl of simple faiths, without pretense or guile. Her naiveté is not an obstacle to empowerment, but a merciful cocoon that shields her from the warring sins of humanity. Innocence, however, is no longer approved of in much contemporary discourse; it’s become an untrendy dramatic and moral idea (see, for example, the smarmy ‘Easy A’). So we get Joffe’s synthetic substitute: the shy wallflower, whose naiveté is an unfashionable burden she must shed to be “liberated.”

Andrea Riseborough as Rose musters all of her acting force into being shy, projecting her facial expressions as if to the back row of the theater. “I’M WITHDRAWN!” her face screams. Meanwhile, John Hurt and Helen Mirren are cast just for their names on the poster in roles too facile to be called characters; they’re dramatic stick figures used to advance the plot. Hurt is wasted, but he’s an actor constitutionally incapable of giving a bad performance. Helen Mirren can give one, and here, does. The richly drawn Ida in Greene’s book — sweet but savvy, convivial and resilient –was uniquely interpreted by actress Hermione Baddeley in the ‘47 film. Mirren is all wrong for the role, and she’s too caught up in giving Ida (and maybe herself?) a patina of “dignity.”

The final cringe-worthy scene that Joffe writes for Hurt and Mirren disrespects both accomplished actors with a “they’re not out to pasture yet” condescension. It’s the same disrespect Joffe shows to his source material, his audience, and cinema in general.

Rating 1 stars

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Ryan Brown is a filmmaker and freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He has an MFA in Media Arts from City College, CUNY. His short films GATE OF HEAVEN and DAUGHTER OF HOPE can be viewed here: With Antonio Tibaldi, he co-wrote the screenplay 'The Oldest Man Alive,' which was selected for the "Emerging Narrative" section of IFP's 2012 Independent Film Week. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Almodóvar (Live Flesh), Assayas (Cold Water), Bellochio (Fists in the Pocket), Breillat (Fat Girl), Coen Bros. (Burn After Reading), Demme (Something Wild), Denis (Friday Night), Herzog (The Wild Blue Yonder), Leigh (Another Year), Skolimowski (Four Nights with Anna), Zulawski (She-Shaman)

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