Graham Greene’s brilliant 1938 study of a murderous boy gangster receives ineffectual screen treatment in this 1964-set version of “Brighton Rock.” Despite its vibrant evocation of the English seaside town where Greene set his tale of reckless youth, sexual dysfunction and what he called “the appalling strangeness of God’s mercy,” writer-director Rowan Joffe’s first feature never shakes off the feel of a telepic with above-average production values, and its unsteady lead performances and often garish stylistic touches make a muddle of the source material’s psychological acuity. Name supporting cast and literary pedigree will ensure some theatrical exposure offshore.
Pic reps the second screen take on Greene’s classic, following the well-regarded 1947 John Boulting-directed adaptation (released Stateside as “Young Scarface”), which starred a young Richard Attenborough as frighteningly amoral teenage thug Pinkie Brown. Here, the mantle of that memorable antihero is taken up by Sam Riley, donning a cheek scar and an array of colored suits, but never digging especially deep in his examination of this vicious, razor-wielding sociopath.
When Pinkie’s mentor, Kite (Geoff Bell), is slashed to death by members of the rival Colleoni gang in the film’s noirish prologue (an event actually described in Greene’s 1936 novel “A Gun for Sale”), the 17-year-old hoodlum is forced to prove himself and hold his ground against his enemies. Pinkie’s first act is to murder Colleoni operative Fred Hale (Sean Harris).
But Pinkie’s getaway is complicated by the presence of Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a hapless tea-room waitress who could link him to the crime if she weren’t so dim, gullible and willing to be seduced. Rather than eliminate the girl, Pinkie romances her into submission, to the alarm of Rose’s protective boss, Ida (a redheaded Helen Mirren), a beacon of practical wisdom and common sense. And so begins a mortal struggle between Pinkie and Ida over Rose, one that only escalates after Pinkie marries the poor girl, removing the threat of her being forced to testify against him.
Ida has been reconceived in some of her particulars from the novel’s blowsier version, upping the character’s respectability a few notches; this has the effect of softening the sharp contrast Greene drew between Ida, an atheist with a strong moral backbone, and Pinkie, a Catholic with no conscience to speak of. Still, Mirren is easily the most commanding screen presence in a film whose young leads never take on the requisite moral dimension or tragic stature.
Riley, so charismatic in “Control,” overplays Pinkie’s vulnerability, shortchanging the ruthlessness that made the character so ferociously compelling on the page. While Riseborough eventually becomes a figure of pathos, her dowdy Rose otherwise comes off as merely pathetic, with too many twitchy, clumsy mannerisms. Because the film never gets under either character’s skin, some of Joffe’s more outre directorial flourishes — a visual style that tends toward the operatic, a score marked by much heightened female caterwauling — feel like empty gestures.
Decision to move the action to 1964 places Pinkie’s violent urges in counterpoint with the Mods-vs.-Rockers youth riots that were happening at the time, staged in one of the film’s few technically ambitious sequences. Outdoor sequences were largely shot (by John Mathieson) in Eastbourne, which, unlike Brighton, still has an old-fashioned pier.
Andy Serkis is wonderfully oily as the head of the Colleoni gang, while Phil Davis and John Hurt register briefly in minor roles.