Tuesday, September 14, 2010

TIFF 2010: "Brighton Rock"

(Gala Presentation)

(United Kingdom, 2010, 111minutes)
Written by: Rowan Joffe
Directed by: Rowan Joffe
Cast: Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Andy Serkis, Helen Mirren, John Hurt

Someone must’ve decided what the world needed now was the umpteenth restaging of the Brighton Mods/Rocker riots, since this opulent but inert adaptation of the Graham Greene novel shifts the action from 1930 to 1964 but won’t make anyone forget John and Roy Bolting’s classic 1947 screen version any time soon.

Otherwise, it’s more or less the same classic tale: this time, Pinky Brown is played by Sam Riley, the Ian Curtis-lookalike from “Control”, who’s a bit too clean-cut to be a hood, despite having earned a prominent facial scar. Only 17 and already a rising star in the local underworld, he takes charge of his gang when their leader is assassinated. Pinky ruthlessly enacts revenge against his mentor’s killer (he’s nothing if not handy with a blade), but when he finds out his act was possibly photographed by a naïve young boardwalk waitress Rose (Riseborough), he schemes to romance the girl and find out just how much she really knows (not to mention, wait for the photo to be processed—no iPhones in 1964!). Rose’s boss Ida (Mirren) isn’t quite so charmed by Pinky’s boyish demeanor, however, and enlists the help of Corkey (Hurt) to unearth his true intentions (old pros Mirren and Hurt can do these broad character turns in their sleep, but they provide some much needed energy and humour to the film’s second half, along with Andy Serkis in a rare human role as the effete thug Mr. Colleoni).

Handsomely mounted and effectively cast with newcomers and old pros, “Brighton Rock” suffers from what I call “Prestige Picture Sag”. Rowan (not Roland, his father) Joffe, making his directorial debut (he’s the screenwriter of “28 Weeks Later” and “The American”, which opened the same weekend TIFF 2010 launched) and his cast seem to be revel in the fetish-y aspects of the era--all fedoras and switchblades and scooters—but yet there's something maddeningly contemporary about the film, as if we're watching people play "dress up", despite Greene’s crackerjack plotting and generally misanthropic world view.

There’s an abundance of foul language—“f bombs” abound (I’m aware that profanity existed in real life long before it became acceptable onscreen, but there were times when I felt the script had been written by Irvine Welsh). Motivations seem a bit murky—Pinky is alternately timid and reserved and then explosively violent (whereas Richard Attenborough’s Pinky was all coiled menace, Riley’s more like a Vulcan), and after several scenes of being treated so shabbily one wonders why Rose puts up with so much abuse (1964 was surely a more enlightened year than 1938, although maybe not by much).

What’s more—with Pinky established as a cold-blooded type so early on, why does resist every opportunity to take Rose out of the picture (he even marries her, and records a bitter monologue lamenting her very existence at a recording booth on the pier). There’s a curious focus on Catholic iconography, to, that might have been intended to be ironic, but comes off as heavy handed, esp. when augmented by a screechy, overwrought score that had me thinking of Mel Brooks’ Hitchcock parody “High Anxiety”, where every time the orchestra kicked in, a bus with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra on it passed by.

As for the riot--never really acknowledged within the narrative other than to provide Pinky with a crowd to slip into--it plays out in the background like something out of a manic Monty Python sketch, with Joffe sticking to the familiar Frank Roddam playbook.

©2010 Robert J. Lewis