Greene Without God: Rowan Joffe's 'Brighton Rock'
Rowan Joffé, the screenwriter son of Roland (director of “The Mission” and this year’s “There Be Dragons”), seems to have inherited his father’s penchant for films with Catholic themes. His directorial debut, “Brighton Rock,” is based on an early (1938) novel by Graham Greene, which was made nine years later into a thrilling film noir with Richard Attenborough as the notoriously evil Pinkie Brown. Greene himself wrote that script with Terence Rattigan.
So all praise to Joffé fils for gumption. His remake is destined to be held up against one of Greene’s greatest novels and what many consider the best-ever British film; and it is nearly impossible, in practice, to disassociate his version from the earlier film and book. Joffé has said he has returned to the novel, at least to its spirit. But he cannot escape the earlier film’s shadow and makes liberal use of it; some scenes are almost identical.
Brighton, the English novelist Keith Waterhouse once wrote, looked like a town that was helping the police with its inquiries. Joffé’s innovation is to picture the town in 1964, when it was still seedy and the threat of the death penalty—essential to the novel’s theme of damnation—still hung over the criminal underworld. This allows the director to set the petty “gangster violence” of Pinkie, Colleoni and their respective thugs against a backdrop of the “gang violence” between Mods and Rockers, which adds to the air of menace. It also offers an aesthetic excuse to exploit 1960s biker movies like “Quadrophenia.” (In one magnificent scene, Pinkie, in a green parka, rides a blue Lambretta along the seafront at the front of a swarm of scooters.) But locating it here also indicates where Joffé thinks the tension lies: in the throes of social change rather than theological drama.
This narrative supplies the film’s strengths, but also its fatal weaknesses. On the plus side are its attention to detail, atmosphere, accents and clothes. The film opens with a lingering shot of bright moonlight on a swelling black sea and a menacing Brighton Pier, a place of deception and violence. By day it is all fairground music, pop guns and targets, flashbulbs, sudden shouts and aching loneliness; underneath, among the pier’s iron supports, gangsters slash their foes with razor blades. This new “Brighton Rock” may not be shot in black and white, but the drab clothes, leaden skies and forbidding sea drain it of light and color.
The novel’s antihero is Pinkie, a teenage gangster who, to cover up a murder, courts Rose, a wide-eyed waitress who has the power to destroy his alibi. The kind-hearted Ida, Rose’s boss in this version, tries to protect her by relentlessly pursuing Pinkie. The cast is strong, with Helen Mirren as Ida and John Hurt as Mr. Corkery, while Sam Riley plays an older Pinkie, brimming with bravado and sexual insecurity, full of grimacing contempt, nerve twitching in his cheek like the tongue of a serpent. His menace and nastiness are the foil to the loving- kindness of Rose, played by Andrea Riseborough, as the lonely, intelligent girl drawn ever deeper into Pinkie’s malevolence without ever being changed by it.
The relationship between the two fascinates Joffé. Rose has unknowingly witnessed accessories to a murder by Pinkie’s gang; Pinkie needs to marry her to ensure she will not testify against him. His malicious intent and her hunger to love draw them closer. She adores; he hates. Yet what lies between them is more complex than a wide-eyed innocent deceived by a heartless cynic, and Joffé explores that ambiguity. Rose exhibits strength and determination in choosing to love Pinkie; and Pinkie, even while he loathes her and is unremittingly cruel, is almost caught, at moments, on the point of surrendering his guard, as if he knows that love offers another path, which he must continue to refuse.
Because it rejects the theology underlying the original novel, this film fails to deliver. The drama of salvation that Greene wove into his taut, cinematic thriller gave it its punch. Capturing the significance of what appears insignificant—the eternal destinies played out in the lives of a petty gangster and his girl—shows Greene’s greatness as an artist. That was retained in the early film version but is almost entirely absent here. A scene in a church and the harsh words of a Catholic sister at the end of the film feel tacked on, incidental, part of a cultural background rather than an inescapable reality—the secularist’s view, essentially, of faith.
In the original novel and film, however, Catholicism takes center stage: Pinkie and Rose are both “Romans”; it is the one thing they have in common. For Rose, a Mass-goer, heaven and love are vividly attractive; for Pinkie, who has rejected God in full knowledge, the reality is hell (“These atheists, they don’t know nothing. Of course there’s hell. Flames and damnation, torments....”). In opposite ways, therefore, they are both tuned to the eternal; they know their lives are written on a bigger canvas. Pinkie has chosen damnation, consciously and with forethought; Rose is willing to embrace hell for love of him.
In the novel, Greene sets the macabre, distorted faith of Pinkie and Rose against the anodyne humanism yet obvious goodness of Ida: big-hearted, compassionate, fond of a cuddle and a glass of port with her men friends. Ida acts, paradoxically, as the vehicle of God’s grace in seeking to rescue Rose from Pinkie. But her actions, like her world, are essentially mundane. Mirren gives an excellent performance that captures the character exactly. But Ida ends up being the reasonable parent who intervenes in a dangerous children’s game.
This misses the importance of what Pinkie and Rose are engaged in. Pinkie may be malice itself, but he has brought Rose out of loneliness into self-giving love. Rose embodies good, yet out of love she is prepared to do evil—to cover up a murder—and even to commit suicide to keep from being parted from her lover (“She hadn’t been afraid to commit mortal sin—it was death, not damnation, which was scaring her”). The thrill of the novel, captured in the earlier film, is precisely in these ambiguities, these characters and their choices cast against a transcendent horizon.
This mood is never absent from the 1947 adaptation—a sense that, as in a medieval morality play, the flames of hell are lurking just beyond the stage. What people do and choose matters. This new “Brighton Rock,” however, lets the theological tension drain away. Without that it is hard to know what the drama is really about or what it is for. My wife, who had no knowledge of Greene or the novel, thought Rose a masochist and the film pointlessly, unremittingly bleak.
Yet in a strange way, it is not bleak enough. The novel’s pitilessly harrowing ending, leading Rose to what the novel calls “the greatest horror of all,” was softened for the 1947 film by Greene and Rattigan in order to get it past the censors. Joffé could have used the novel’s ending, but preferred the Greene/Rattigan alternative. It is a “deviously brilliant ending,” Joffé told Sky TV; “it’s dark and ambiguous—so I felt I couldn’t better that.”
Fair enough; that is his choice. But Joffé misses out on a crucial scene that gives both previous endings—the novel’s and the 1947 film’s—their power and poignancy. After Pinkie’s death, Rose confesses to a priest that she wished she had killed herself and had been damned along with Pinkie. The priest, noting that corruptio optimi pessima est —Catholics are more capable of evil than others because of their knowledge of what they do—nonetheless speaks to her of “the appalling… strangeness of the mercy of God.” In the novel and original film, then, the possibility that Pinkie could love signals that his damnation was not inevitable, and that the lovers might have been reunited, after all, in heaven. But without that scene, the drama vanishes; we are left not with theological hope but with naïve self-delusion.
Even at close to two hours, this “Brighton Rock” never feels slow or awkward. It is expertly acted and a feast for the eyes, if not the heart. But the overall effect is depressing. It leaves behind a foul taste. Instead of the reckless possibility of grace, the audience is left with a nagging doubt: that perhaps the world really is like this Brighton—a seedy place of transient cheap thrills, leading out to nothingness, like a pier stuffed with arcade games. Onto it stray psychotics and naïfs, but normality—loveless and mundane—is eventually restored and tedium resumes. Joffé’s “Brighton Rock” ends up approving that secular humanist ideal and betrays what Greene, as a Catholic and an artist, intended.