THE NEW AND IMPROVED BRIGHTON ROCK

The next post will be on or before Friday 20th April. If you would like to read my latest comic novel about online dating THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE, please go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right. Please note I now have a new Facebook Author page at https://www.facebook.com/JohnMurrayAuthor/

 

THE NEW AND IMPROVED BRIGHTON ROCK

Sam Riley (born 1980) is such a gifted actor his portrayal of the youthful psychopathic gangster Pinky in the 2010 remake of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock (1938) makes you so angry you want to get in there and give him a good hiding. Riley has variously played the doomed Joy Division rock star Ian Curtis and Sal Paradise the flamboyant hero of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road so he is evidently a versatile actor. Here he combines a vicious surliness with a frighteningly cold and affectless expression, the only sign of any human tenderness being the fact he has a framed photograph of presumably his Dad in wartime uniform of whom we learn nothing during the film. Brutal and amoral as he is, he is also a staunch believer in his Roman Catholic faith and at one stage says to his pathetic partner Rose that it is the only thing that makes any sense, especially the reality of Hell with its eternal fire.

The film updates the 30s novel to the early 1960s just as the original 1947 film with Richard Attenborough as Pinky set the action in the 1940s. Pinky is a part of a Brighton criminal gang specialising in protection rackets, which is run by the elderly Spicer played by the tried and trusted Philip Davis (born 1953) notable elsewhere for his bleakly comic performances in Mike Leigh movies. Spicer drinks heavily and is evidently exhausted and losing his nerve, so teenage Pinky has no problem in frightening him into apparent submission. These two plus their cohorts Cubitt (Craig Parkinson born 1976 who regularly plays bluff, no nonsense London detectives) and Dallow portrayed by Nonso Anozie (born 1978) who is of part-Nigerian descent, find themselves in opposition to the mighty Colleoni, extortionist and gambling magnate par excellence. Andy Serkis (born 1964) who has previously played the anarchic singer Ian Dury makes a magnificent Colleoni so vulgarly rich he has a permanent suite in Brighton’s poshest hotel and a host of suited minders stationed permanently downstairs to vet any potential visitors. Pinky comes to see him alone and unprotected where he states his fearless opposition to the great man and the fact he is ready to betray Spicer, to lure him to the pier where Colleoni’s men can do what they like with him. Things have become very unstable since Pinky went too far in beating up rival gangster Fred Hale (Sean Harris, born 1966, who interestingly has also played Ian Curtis) and ended up braining him with a rock underneath the pier. He was supposed to give him a hiding no more and Spicer is enraged now that all of them face capital charges. My DVD copy says the action is set in 1964 which was indeed the year that the last execution by hanging was performed in the UK (it was finally abolished a year later) but that date also fits with the pitched battles between Mods (qv tidy haircuts and riding scooters) and Rockers (greasy tonsures and straddling motorbikes) which are also an integral part of the film, and present an effective counterpoint of youthful criminal deviance to the organised variety.

Spicer has additional reason to be very alarmed as there was a pier photographer took a snap of him intimidating Fred Hale as Hale tried to save himself by claiming he was with his girlfriend, a rather gormless café waitress called Rose. Rose, on her lunch break, didn’t know Fred from Adam but the photographer unwittingly took a group shot of Hale looking terrified, Spicer looking angry and Rose looking baffled just a few minutes before Hale was battered to death by Pinky. The photographer gives Rose a piece of paper which will redeem a gratis print of the photo if she turns up at his newspaper offices, from which point on she becomes inevitable key to the development of all else.

Rose is played by rising superstar Andrea Riseborough (born 1981) who justly made her name in the 2014 Birdman starring Edward Norman and Michael Keaton. She wears unflattering glasses, is hesitant, inarticulate, and the last word in confused insecurity. Back home she has a bad-tempered Dad who bellows at her all the time and in the café where she works she believes that the other girls shun her. Pinky wastes no time in tracking her down in the cafe and brazenly ingratiating himself, pointing out they have so much in common, both being Roman Catholics, both largely friendless, hence very wisely trusting no one. He arranges a date that same night, then steals the paper slip for the incriminating photo from her coat pocket. Nonetheless his paradigm instability means in small things he cannot control himself, and when the service is slow in Rose’s café he batters the table deafeningly to get some attention. This earns the ire of the café manager Ida played brilliantly by Helen Mirren (born 1945) who I’m not customarily a fan of if only because she stars in so many lightweight films, but she surely shows her mettle here. She evidences a dryness, wryness and mordant worldly-wise persona that must have needed decades as an actress to perfect. She is throughout the film wonderfully paired with her old mate the equally shrewd and unfoolable Corkery the betting shop owner flawlessly portrayed by that virtuoso, the late John Hurt (1940-2017). Meanwhile regardless of the damning photograph, there must have been witnesses of Rose in conversation with Hale and Spicer, so Pinky immediately goes out of his way to terrify his new date into submission. He tells her about other young girls in Brighton who have blabbed about things they have seen relating to gang members, and who have had acid thrown in their faces as a result. He then brings out a phial of sulphuric he keeps for emergencies and proceeds to burn the wood of the bench they are sitting on. Rose is suitably aghast and when Pink asks her to swear a vow of allegiance to him and of silence to the world, she does so at once, and overall she is convincingly portrayed as someone who demonstrates a mindless devotional slavery as a function of her exceptionally low self-esteem.

After his conversation with Colleoni, Pinky lures nervous Spicer to the pier supposedly in order to make peace with the town’s criminal overlord. Spicer wants out of the stressful gangster life so has plans to purchase a little pub up in Nottingham and wants Pinky to buy him out, and even grovelingly tells the young psychopath he will always be welcome in his pub for its perfect pint. To the accompaniment of Mods and Rockers scrapping on the same beach, Spicer is cornered by half a dozen thugs and his heartrending screams are just audible against the racket of the battling youth. The Colleoni boys however double-cross Pinky and pursue him too and there is a telling scene where Pinky shows his vulnerability as after his escape he sits down and cries his terror and his outrage. When he gets back to the ugly subterranean flat where he and the rest live, to his astonishment he is told that Spicer has returned too, for indeed the betrayed gang boss had managed to get away. Pinky confronts him in his bedroom where badly battered Spicer is hurriedly packing and he taunts him with a stick of Brighton rock inserted threateningly into his mouth. We aren’t shown exactly what follows. but shortly after Spicer is seen washed up on the seashore with the Brighton rock rammed deep into his throat as effective choking device.

Pinky’s next inspiration is to marry Rose, as the law, as it then stood, was that a wife could not testify against her husband in court. For that he needs to get permission from her appalling Dad who like Pinky lives in some dog rough subterranean annexe, effective contrast to the palatial mansions which populate Brighton sea front and in front of which the disenfranchised teenage gangs gleefully battle it out. More significantly the rooms where Pinky, Dallow and Cubitt hang out are bleak and desolate to the point of no return, so that when for instance Pinky takes Rose home from the registrar office wedding and has her brutally on the bed, the surroundings are so wonderfully horrible we suddenly decide that Pinky’s obsession with the Catholic hell is vividly exemplified by the place in which he lives, a barren rabbit warren with its mental hospital beds and leaden cupboards so unbelievably ugly it is truly infernal.  Before he can enjoy Rose though, Pinky has to literally buy her off her loveless Dad who smilelessly barters for £175 so that his daughter gets properly looked after. Soon after, horrified Ida, pretending to Dallow to be Rose’s mother, tracks her down at home, and urges her to give up on the double murderer (of opponent Hale and ally Spicer) and warns her that he only married Rose to avoid her testimony in court. Rose promptly pulls one of Pinky’s knives on her, but wise Ida feels only pity rather than anger at her hopeless simplicity and suicidal infatuation. She and Corkery even go and visit Colleoni to plead for Rose’s safety, as the next logical step is that Pinky will murder his new wife given her tendency to blab what had happened despite her husband’s threats.

Before Pinky takes her on what he hopes to be her final journey, Rose begs him to make a romantic record on Brighton pier in one of those 1960s self-recording booths. In a harrowing scene and with his frighteningly blank, immobile face, Pinky inside the kiosk starts by saying that she wants him to say he loves her, but that he hates everything about her, including her clothes her face and her conversation. Rose stood outside the soundproof booth is beaming seraphically at the man she loves, who is evidently saying wonderfully sentimental things about her. With a gun in his pocket, he then puts her on his scooter and drives them up to remote high cliffs where he urges to her shoot herself in the ear (it won’t hurt at all I promise!) and with Pinky guaranteed to do the same right after. Riseborough’s acting here as she faces death to appease the man she loves beyond words, is a masterly evocation of fear, grief and cruel pathos. Cue Dallow and Ida immediately in pursuit in a battered little car that at first won’t start as an impressive exercise in deus ex machina dramatics. Dallow, thank God, manages to beat Pinky off and the two of them engage in a mortal combat. I won’t spoil things by telling you the precise grisly ending but suffice to say Pinky meets an appropriate Nemesis whereas poor Rose, pregnant by her dead husband, ends up in a Catholic refuge run by nuns for unmarried mothers. Still infatuated and loyal to the end, she borrows a record player and plays Pinky’s booth recording and thanks to a glitch peculiar to cheap old vinyl remains convinced to the end that Pinky had loved her beyond words.

The only complaint I have about this excellent film is the unsatisfactory and seemingly contrived religious motif, and I would level the same objection at both the 1947 movie and Graham Greene’s original novel. Pinky’s allegiance to his RC faith is as it were glued on to his persona rather than rising from it naturally, and the same could be said of Pinky/Attenborough’s 1940s allegiance and ditto re the protagonists in many of Greene’s novels and their film adaptations (e.g. The End of the Affair and its 1999 movie) where guilt and arctic loneliness seem to be the thematic pivot, but as it were slapped on adventitiously, almost formally, by seemingly ecclesiastical decree. At one point Sam Riley gets on his knees to beg for delivery from his pursuers, and later Rose goes into church to pray for their happiness on the day of the wedding, but it all seems oddly glued on after the event rather than stemming naturally from the otherwise convincing characters.

Very recently I have been complaining about inept remakes of film classics whereas I would argue the opposite here. This 2010 adaptation seems to me to be streets ahead of the 1947 classic which is often lauded by critics as an exemplary work of genius. I would say that apart from Attenborough’s impressive acting as bloodless Pinky, everyone else in the original comes across as standard 1940s wooden, perpetually talking and barking their lines rather than feeling them. This remake was the directorial debut of Rowan Joffe (born 1973) who decided to make more of Greene’s ‘Roman’ dimension, which alas in my view was no strategic improvement. Other than that, the film deserves a full 5 stars and it might be of interest to know it was shot in Eastbourne rather than Brighton, a Sussex seaside town I have not yet visited.

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