Graham Greene's great 1939 novel about an ambitious teen psychopath's attempt to ascend the gangland ladder and his dark plans for the pliable girl who crosses his path comes to startling life in Rowan Joffe's elegant, suspenseful thriller. Control's Sam Riley steps into a role made unforgettable by a young Richard Attenborough in the 1947 original and makes it his own, slipping into the character like a second skin. Surprisingly, this terrific adaptation left the Toronto International Film Festival without a U.S. distributor. With a cast that includes Helen Mirren and John Hurt and a well-told tale with equal appeal to Greene and suspense fans, the savvy distributor that picks this up will be in happy possession of a potential sleeper.
With Eastbourne substituting for the now overly modern titular seaside resort, Joffe updates the story to 1964, the year the Mods and Rockers faced off in a series of riots on Brighton's boardwalk, a scene familiar to fans of The Who's Quadrophenia. It is a brilliant move, lending the tale color and making it more contemporary even as it underlines that Pinkie (Riley) is a vicious throwback to an earlier time. Despite the scooter he appropriates from some unfortunate Mod, Pinkie is not part of any youth movement; instead, he's the youngest member of a down-at-the-heels gang who reacts decisively to the loss of the only father figures he knows.
Pinkie's revenge isolates him from his own gang who fear both Pinkie's volatility and the heat his action might bring upon them. "Never thought I'd live in fear of anything, except the atom bomb. Certainly not a bunch of kids—one kid," says Spicer (Phil Davis), the gang's aging, increasingly shaky leader. The incident also brings him into the orbit of teashop waitress Rose (Andrea Riseborough). He believes he knows how to shut her up. "You're good and I'm bad. We're made for each other," he tells her. Pinkie is not exactly subtle and his flamboyant psychosis brings him to the attention of Ida (Helen Mirren) and Phil (John Hurt) who are determined to see the brash youth put in his place.
Joffe juggles a lot of elements in his story, including the Catholicism which so marked Greene's work and the religion that promises Pinkie and even Rose the hellfire of eternal damnation for their sins. This said, Joffe never drops any balls or loses sight of the fact that this is essentially a thrilling film noir blended with a twisted romance. Riley is unforgettable as the young psycho whose ambition outstrips his reach, but his is only one among many excellent performances delivered by Joffe's ace cast.
Cinematographer John Mathieson, composer Martin Phipps, costume designer Julian Day and Production Designer James Merifield all make first-rate contributions, evoking a sense of time and place as well as a feeling of inescapable doom. Graham Greene was a film fan and he co-adapted his novel to the screenplay of the original Brighton Rock. One can't help but think that he would be pleased at this latest iteration of his work.
Contact: StudioCanal, 1 place du Spectacle, 9286 Issy-les-Moulineaux, France, T +31 (0)1 71 35 35 35
Cast: Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Helen Mirren, John Hurt, Phil Davis, Nonzo Anozie, Craig Parkinson, Andy Serkis, Sean Harris, Geoff Bell
Director/Screenwriter: Rowan Joffe
Producer: Paul Webster
Running time: 111 min
Release date: Unset