Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Brit Noir: Brighton Rock

Catholicism is not the villain in Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock, per se, but it holds a rather ambiguous if significant place in the overall scheme of things. Like Greene, the somewhat reluctant convert, small time hoodlum Pinkie Brown is also a professed Roman Catholic, but there is no mistaking his sociopathic behavior. Yet, somehow an innocent working girl does exactly that in Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock (trailer here), the latest adaption of Greene’s noir morality tale, which opens this Friday in New York.

It is the mid-1960’s rather than the 1930’s of the novel and classic John Boulting film, but the characters’ prospects have not changed. Brown is a thug. Rose is a waitress. They both work on the bottom end of the food chain in the seaside resort town of Brighton (known for the titular rock candy). In no way is Rose his type, but circumstances force him to seduce her, at least temporarily. She happened to be on break when Brown’s accomplices were about to settle a score with a rival gangster and one of the tourist-preying photographers captured the moment on film. Rose was given the claim check, not that it meant anything to her. Of course, Brown’s gang will stop at nothing to get it, so Brown is sent in to employ his highly questionable charm on his fellow Catholic.

Rose’s boss Ida Arnold immediately sees through Brown. Though a respectable woman, she has some understanding of the way the world works. In fact, she was a friend of the man Brown’s gang murdered. Unfortunately, the love-struck young woman remains deaf to her warnings.

As crime drama, Brighton is a handsome diversion, but nothing classic. However, it is a joy to watch Dame Helen Mirren and John Hurt bicker, banter, and flirt as Arnold and her sort-of-not-really platonic gentleman friend Phil Corkery. They both invest their characters with charm and intelligence, developing genuine chemistry together.

Of course that spark is completely lacking (by design) for Sam Riley and Andrea Riseborough, as Brown and Rose, respectively. Yet, Riley never really works in the role, failing to convey the proper sense of malevolence as Brown, considered one of the most iconic heavies in British cinema and literature. As a consolation though, Andy Serkis chews the scenery with appropriate relish as Colleoni, Brighton’s local kingpin, proving he can make a substantial impression even when not buried under layers of prosthetics and CGI effects.

Based on their turns in Brighton, someone should cast Mirren and Hurt as Nick and Nora Charles-like sleuths investigating Andy Serkis as their primary antagonist. This is not that movie, but it has its moments. Regardless, it all looks great, thanks to the moody noir visual style and rich period details crafted by cinematographer John Mathieson and production designer James Merifield’s team. There is no question it is the old pros who save Brighton, but that is what old pros do. Recommended on balance, Brighton opens this Friday (8/26) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.