Brighton Rock never brings its baby-faced hood antihero, the scarfaced Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley, pouting and hunched in the late-DiCaprio manner), into a semblance of human plausibility. Adapter-director Rowan Joffe has updated the crime-lit classic from the late ‘30s to 1964 and leeched out the sweaty, underworld juice of Graham Greene’s noirish plot while predictably glamming up the violence, as in staging Pinkie’s betrayal of an inconvenient mob comrade (Philip Davis) in the midst of the period’s mods-versus-rockers rioting. Putting Pinkie on a scooter, with a chorale singing Latin mass adaptations subbing for the Who on the soundtrack, gloms superficially onto Quadrophenia-style iconography while kicking Greene under the pier.
As the virginal seaside-cafe waitress who gets ensnared in the resort’s gang war, and falls into blinkered love with the scheming thug, Andrea Riseborough brings isolated moments of pathos and fragile defensiveness to the screen, but Joffe fails to root her gullibility in any sense of the era or her brutish working-class home. When Pinkie negotiates a payoff to gain her father’s consent for a witness-silencing marriage, the film can’t resist turning it into a blatant haggling over goods, shedding Greene’s aura of despair for smugness. Riley never gives Pinkie’s assurance to his target, “You and me got things in common,” the ironic dimension achieved through the pitiable mix of bestiality and puerile alienation remarkably brought to the character by young Richard Attenborough in the 1947 screen version. And the vestiges of Greene’s Catholic scenes—Pinkie and waitress Rose are both “Romans,” afflicted with more shame than guilt—come down with a heavy, obligatory hand, while Joffe and cinematographer John Mathieson generally concern themselves with the glaringly white light illuminating the Brighton beaches, or the plush white rug at the club headquarters of the city’s new Mr. Big (a slicked-back, tea-sipping Andy Serkis), soiled by the hopelessly ambitious Pinkie’s grimy soles.
Joffe is particularly inept at the gang-assault sequences, senselessly crosscutting from the principals’ switchblade wars to waterfront hawkers or the youth rumbles on the piers, and as a writer he can make no sense of the tale’s do-gooder, Ida Arnold, with Helen Mirren unpersuasive as the seen-it-all manager of Rose’s workplace, a curiously unlikely type to come to the girl’s rescue by getting moralistic about the mob’s role in local affairs. (Greene’s Ida was no employer, but a blowsy, hard-drinking, perpetually horny middle-aged optimist, not the kind of role you can fit Oscar-winning dames into.) Brighton Rock is another example of buying a revered title then gutting what made it unique, but on its own terms, it’s about as savory as the titular candy homicidally jammed down a throat.