Review: ‘Brighton Rock’ a Stylishly Nasty Noir Update

Rowan Joffe updates the Graham Greene story to the 1960s but keeps the twisted characters and murky morality

“I hate you. I hate the way you look, I hate the way you talk, I hate everything about you,” says Pinkie Brown to his betrothed on their wedding day. She can’t hear him, as he’s in a sound booth recording his words while she blithely smiles at him through the glass.

Oh, to be young and in love. 

This scene neatly sums up Rowan Joffe’s smart and stylish film noir, “Brighton Rock,” based on Graham Greene’s 1938 novel chronicling the rise and fall of a small-time thug.

Joffe and company have updated the action from the 1930s to 1964, as Pinkie (the exquisite Sam Riley) becomes the head of his own gang at the tender age of 17. A cold-blooded sociopath, he has no trouble winning the respect of his men, even though he’s the youngest among them.

When waitress Rose (Andrea Riseborough) becomes a witness in a murder case, Pinkie marries the girl, knowing that a wife cannot be compelled to testify against her husband. Sheltered and suffering at the abusive hand of her widowed father, Rose wants a new life and sees Pinkie as her way out.

While she convinces herself that Pinkie’s love is real, he’s planning a double suicide — ladies first, naturally.

Richard Attenborough played Pinkie in the original 1947 film, and it’s easy to see how the new adaptation draws on British noir of the ’40s and ’50s, particularly “Night and the City” and “The Third Man,” both also based on Greene’s writing.

In typical noir fashion, Joffe and cinematographer John Mathieson favor low angles and minimal camera movement, framing characters in doorways, mirrors and windows, boxing them into drab and dingy compositions. The beaches and open skies surrounding the faded festivity of Palace Pier are awash in gray, the ocean green and murky.

Where Greene’s novel is concerned with Roman Catholic issues of sin and morality, Joffe’s screenplay mainly focuses on the more earthly motivations of power and love. Nearly everything Pinkie does identifies him as a psychopath without conscience — so why doesn’t he simply do away with Rose? Why bother going through the trouble of convincing her that double-suicide is the best way forward?

Perhaps the answers lie in the issues of sin and morality Joffe chose to downplay.

Riley has his work cut out for him playing Pinkie, a teenaged boss of men with a menacing baby-face. Add to that challenge the fact that he must also play an actor, as Pinkie pretends to care for Rose while secretly seething at his predicament. Riley nails the role’s many demands, owning Pinkie and providing a solid anchor to the film.

Riseborough played supporting parts in “Happy-Go-Lucky” and “Made in Dagenham,” but here she takes center stage as the ill-fated Rose. She believes Pinkie loves her despite evidence to the contrary simply because she needs to, for her own emotional well being.

And while Rose’s willful blindness to her predicament risks rendering her pathetic in the eyes of the audience, Riseborough imbues her with humanity and a naïve awakening to the freeing power of love that makes Rose irresistibly sympathetic.

Writer-director Rowan is the son of Roland Joffe, the director of “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission.” Having launched his career as the writer of films like “28 Weeks Later” and “The American,” the younger Joffe scores an auspicious feature debut with “Brighton Rock.” It’s an incisive, stylistic throwback to the kind of movie that Hollywood originated and no longer seems interested or even capable of making.