Adapting a novel so widely adored like Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock for the big screen is a brave move in itself. But when you take the entire setting of the story, push it twenty years into the future and begin to tweak the core elements of Greene’s classic crime story, that is a move that can only be described as fearless. Nonetheless, this is exactly what Rowan Joffe, writer of last year’s hugely misunderstood The American, has done. He has lifted the classic story of a young gangster who must marry a waitress to keep her quiet after she witnesses a murder and places it against a backdrop of mods, rockers, youth riots and huge social change in Britain.
But the most staggering aspect of this whole process, however, is that it somehow works.
Aside from just giving Graham Greene’s story a unique aesthetic – one that is so brilliantly constructed through set design, production and cinematography that you can almost smell the salty air of the Brighton waterfront – Joffe actually manages to make Graham’s complex themes complement the 1960s setting against which it plays out.
One of the pivotal aspects of Greene’s story, for example, is the arc of its lead character of Pinkie Brown; a boy desperate to prove his worth when he is forced to lead his gang through a troublesome time in which competition with another gang, led by Andy Serkis, is near impossible. This struggle for the boy to overcome his adult rival brilliantly mirrors the essence behind many of the aforementioned youth riots that took place around the UK and reflects a time in history when the ideologies of the young started to contest against the old.
Equally, Joffe manages play down many of the religious themes that permeated through the novel and instead places more focus on the story of his female protagonist Rose. Her conflict with whether to do the right thing and talk about the murder – implicating her partner in the crime – manages to draw resemblance to the feminist issues of the decade. This was, after all, a crucial era in history for women’s independence.
But, of course, by drastically altering so many of Brighton Rock’s central components, things that made the original story so mesmerising are undoubtedly lost. The characters of Ida Arnold and Phil Corkery, played by British screen icons Helen Mirren and John Hurt, are a fundamental part in Greene’s story, for example, but never quite blossom here. Also, Joffe occasionally struggles to make aspects the story believable now that they take place in an era that is different in culture, social attitudes and technology.
The character of Pinkie Brown, moreover, though intriguing enough to make the film enjoyable, doesn’t carry half of the inner-turmoil and subtle depth that he carried in the book or the original 1940s film. Sam Riley, notable for his work in Joy Division biopic Control, is certainly contributing factor to this as he delivers a performance that lacks a full understanding of what makes his complex gangster tick.
Although it has its faults, Brighton Rock is the kind of novel adaptation that cinema should see a lot more of; one that doesn’t just simply transfer its prose to the big screen but attempts to provide a bold spark of originality and imagination.