Shiny Shelf

Brighton Rock Blu-ray(2011)

By Jim Smith on 20 June 2011

I am broadly in favour of remakes and re-adaptations. I find the argument that they demonstrate that [Reader to Insert Media Organisation of Choice] is creatively bankrupt to be fallacious. Remakes and new versions have always been part of film and television. There are, after all, three distinct versions of ‘La sortie des usines Lumière’.

However, creating a film of an acclaimed novel which has itself already been filmed to great acclaim is a project fraught with difficulties. What can you do that means the project is both a worthwhile adaptation of the original novel and a worthy companion piece to the earlier film? How can you to bring something of yourself to picture without taking away something that the earlier interpretation got right?

In this case, I’m afraid, the answers to the above are entirely elusive.

Rowan Joffe’s ‘Brighton Rock’ is beautifully photographed and extremely well played by all involved. Sam Riley, Phil Davis, Andrea Risborough, Helen Mirren, John Hurt are all outstanding. Andy Serkis does an enjoyable cameo. There are no complaints on this score.

The problems lies principally with Joffe’s own adaptation of Greene’s novel and his decisions to a) relocate the narrative to the early 1960s and b) his back-pedalling, either by accident or design, on the novel’s tortured Catholic morality.

To tackle those in reverse order, much of Greene’s desperate, despairing Catholicism has been blunted, tidied or eliminated. Now, speaking personally, I do not believe in God. I certainly don’t subscribe to a Catholic morality. Graham Greene did. To remove his characters from a Catholic moral universe, or at least Greene’s perception of one, is as pointless as doing a version of Oedipus where the Oracle is fallible. The story stops working.

Greene’s Pinkie, as brilliantly played by Richard Attenborough, is a primal force. His terror of damnation is real and vivid, but there’s no explanation for what he is. Joffe’s Pinkie, as brilliantly played by Sam Riley, is given a background that makes him simply another troubled youth. He tenderly cradles pictures of a dead father in World War 2 uniform and at the film’s outset sees his gang’s original leader brutally murdered in front of him. We’re given to understand that he was a substitute father figure and these two forced paternal abandonments are jointly responsible for Pinkie’s moral descent. Tellingly, someone describes him using the phrase, anachronistic to the novel, “angry young man”. Pinkie’s terrible uniqueness has been abandoned and he has become generic.

Ida is also re-characterised, the challenging presentation of her as woman who is lax with regards to matters of society’s perceptions of religion and sexuality, but who has an unflinching moral sense far greater than any of the ostensibly religious characters is abandoned. She’s a nice old dame, instead. The point of the character disappears, despite the fact that Dame Helen is brilliant and bewilderingly beautiful in the part.

Rose may linger in Church before her (registry office) wedding to Pinkie. The final shot may be, as it is in the Greene scripted/Boulting directed film, of a crucifix hanging on a wall, but the basic problem is this: In Joffe’s film Rose is a Catholic, in Greene’s prose and screenplay it’s reality which is Catholic.

The story’s relocation to the early sixties and the use of a background of Mod on Rocker violence creates issues both narrative and aesthetic. As this is 1964 we need to take detours into the characters looking at the imminent abolition of capital punishment (Pinkie’s fear of ‘the drop’ being such a major part of the story). If this is 1964 where is the music that was as much of a part of being a mod as the scooters and the suits and the clean living under difficult circumstances?

Most bafflingly, Rose’s now lives in a concrete 1960s council block which has fallen into disrepair and decay, looking like something out of a near future thriller of the 1980s. In 1964 few of these blocks would have been built. They were intensely desirable to most council tenants. None had managed to accumulate forty years of neglect, wear and tear.

The setting adds nothing and additionally creates problems in terms of the story’s social outlook, most of which go unsolved. To be honest, it looks like Joffe actually wanted to remake ‘Quadrophenia’ but didn’t see the point as it already has swearing and is in colour.

In many ways this film resembles the Michael Winner remake of ‘The Big Sleep’.  It is, of course, nowhere near as bad as Winner’s film, because few films are; but there are points of comparison. It’s a new version of an acclaimed monochrome film of a great crime novel. A wonderful cast is assembled, presumably brought together by the intriguing notion of material that had worked so well before.  In both later adaptations the relocations temporal, physical and spiritual eviscerate the story of its meaning, resulting in the viewer scratching their head at what on earth the new producers of the new version were even attempting to achieve.

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