You’ll forgive a little anxiety going into the new adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel Brighton Rock, from writer/director Rowan Joffe. The last time the Joffe name was on a cinematic version of a literary classic, after all, the result was the 1995 tire fire that was The Scarlet Letter.
But Joffe shows considerably more respect for his source in Brighton Rock, although he shifts the setting from the 1930s to 1964. The story still follows Pinky (Sam Riley), a young gangster whose boss has just been executed by a rival gang. Pinky tries to keep the crew together, but they face another threat when a shy young woman named Rose (Andrea Riseborough) becomes an eyewitness who could connect the gang to the murder of a delinquent gambler.
Greene’s novel was steeped in the author’s Roman Catholic concepts of sin and guilt, and Joffe makes at least an effort at exploring those themes more fully than the 1947 film version. Yet while there might be more references to mortal sin and conspicuous shots of crucifixes, it doesn’t always feel that the ideas are integrated fully into what is essentially a straightforward underworld thriller full of double-crosses and tense meetings.
It is, however, reasonably effective as that straightforward thriller, folding the rising youth culture of the 1960s into fears of radical societal change. And it’s even better at making the innocent Rose the true center of the narrative. Riseborough does terrific work of conveying Rose’s infatuation with the bad-boy Pinky, and the consequences of sacrificing principles for a feeling that she wants to call “love.” You’ll see fewer more heartbreaking shots this year than Rose’s giddy smile as she watches Pinky recording what she believes is a professioscottn of adoration, but which is, in fact, an expression of pure contempt. If Joffe winds up nailing Brighton Rock’s complex morality, it’s in the face of that one confused soul.
Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Helen Mirren