Good Melodrama

‘BRIGHTON ROCK’

Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938) was published when the author was thirty-four but reads like the creation of a teenaged genius, a British Arthur Rimbaud. A blood-and-thunder gangster yarn rippled by Roman Catholic theology, it’s written by someone with an eye as hungry as a camera (Greene was the film critic for the Spectator when he wrote it) but also with the virginal disgust for physicality, particularly for sex, that many teenagers feel when first negotiating puberty. Just a reflection of the seventeen-year-old protagonist’s warped mind? Perhaps, but even when the young gangster Pinky Brown (a Catholic who relishes his own damnation) is offstage, this disgust courses through the prose. Here’s Rose, a girl as innocent and needy as Pinky is solitary and malign. She’s watching a friendly landlady ascend stairs in a fetid boardinghouse: “Rose could see a dead white leg, like something which has lived underground, covered with russet hairs; a dingy slipper flapped a loose heel.” This literary close-up neatly maximizes the seediness of the locale, but the entire book overflows with things that are dead or dingy or both. At times I felt that Brighton Rock was written by Pinky.

Rose is in that boardinghouse because it’s Pinky’s headquarters. He’s just married her so she won’t testify against him for two murders he’s committed while trying to boss a small band of gangsters who offer “protection” to bookmakers in 1930s Brighton, a seaside resort town. Also a Catholic, she loves Pinky so much that she’s willing to share his damnation. Hating life, sex, and Rose, the young gangster contemplates murdering her as a back-up plan if matrimony doesn’t stifle her testimony.

Enter a would-be rescuer, Ida Arnold, a middle-aged party girl who takes on the cause of Rose’s rescue the way some people latch onto a hobby. For all his nastiness, Pinky believes in God; for all her benevolence, Ida believes in nothing but a good time. So, with Rose as the prize, battle is joined: a hideous, crypto-Gnostic religious apprehension versus a happy-go-lucky nihilism.

British writer-director Rowan Joffe’s new film adaptation (the previous one, directed by John Boulting, with a screenplay by Greene himself, and starring the very young Richard Attenborough as Pinky came out in 1947) makes the story more palatable but also more conventional. He retains some of the book’s spiritual force but softens Greene’s stark contrasts of superficial goodness and profound evil.

The locale is now the Brighton of 1964 instead of the 1930s. It still functions as a squalid-sinister tourist trap but, while Greene constantly emphasized the squalor, Joffe lays on the lurid beauty of a coastal town, often pictured at night. His talented cinematographer, John Mathieson, renders the shadows blue and the omnipresent incoming fog pearly white. This is film noir painted by Whistler.

Joffe has said he chose the ’60s era because it was a time of youth revolt, and he wished to align Pinky’s criminality with the rioting of Mods and Rockers (that indeed took place in Brighton in 1964 and was well dramatized in Franc Roddam’s brilliant 1979 Quadrophenia, with music by The Who). In this respect, happily, Joffe has failed. The topicality is marginal and Pinky’s evil here remains both socially idiosyncratic and spiritually universal, just as Greene intended it. The delinquents we briefly see function only to accidentally rescue our hero from the switchblades of rival gang members. (Perhaps the recent British riots will confer a serendipitous relevancy on the film.)

The movie is more physically violent than the book. Greene kept the more gruesome stuff off page while Joffe plants it center screen, and the editing and the soundtrack (filled with drumbeats and early ’60s rock) give all scenes, violent in content or not, a percussive feel. Even some of the more intimate moments can jar you, as when, sitting with Rose (Andrea Riseborough) on a lonely beachfront at night, Pinky (Sam Riley), pretending to be tender but really threatening her, relates the horror of a girl scarred by acid when she threatened to turn state’s evidence. Just as he whispers, “She lost an eye,” the electric light of a nearby photo booth switches off with a thud. The noise and the sudden plunge into darkness seem to collaborate with Pinky.

Joffe’s script cannily fills in some of the holes in the book’s plot, but the real tidying comes in the redesign of Ida, whom Greene portrayed as a voluptuous, jobless flirt, living by her wits and loins. Joffe repositions her solidly in the middle class as the manager of a teashop. Here she doesn’t involve herself with Pinky and Rose through whim but because Rose is a waitress on her staff, and the older woman’s maternal instincts are aroused by the sixteen-year-old’s plight.

But the director’s most important choice was the casting of Helen Mirren as Ida. The marvelous Mirren summons up the same mixture of dedication, shrewdness, wit, and compassion for her portrayal of Ida that made her a star as Inspector Tennison in the Prime Suspect series. Greene meant Ida to be almost as questionable a character as Pinky, but what viewer is going to fail to cheer on Helen Mirren when she stands up to a vicious punk like Pinky, especially since Riley’s forceful but not particularly subtle performance scants the pitiable aspects of the hoodlum? Thus we are no longer presented with a case of superficial goodness versus profound evil. It’s simply right versus wrong.

So this movie fits more snugly into the category of melodrama than the book, which squirms and wriggles within its genre and gazes yearningly at the realm of tragedy without quite getting there. And who is to say that good melodrama is to be scorned? This well-wrought thriller will entertain you and may cling to your thoughts for a while, whereas the novel might depress you—and gnaw at your dreams forever.

And, by the way, the surprise ending that seems to confirm the mercy of God isn’t in the novel but was invented by Greene himself for the 1947 film. In later years the author disparaged it, but I think it still works nicely. At any rate, Greene was a practical man of cinema as well as a great writer, so perhaps he’s turning only halfway over in his grave, not to deplore but to cheer on this new adaptation of one of his strangest novels.

Published in the 2011-10-21 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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