Someone who had seen the film asked me if Brighton had change: I suspect not much.
Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, which first appeared in 1938, remains the archetypal Catholic novel. Any discussion of the genre will always have some reference to the work. Ten years later, the book was made into a film, now available on DVD, which is still worth watching, and is usually described as a masterpiece of British cinema. Directed by John Boulting, the script was by Terence Rattigan and Graham Greene, with the part of the gangster Pinkie taken by Richard Attenborough. Thus, in filming Brighton Rock today, Rowan Joffe is working in the shadow not only of a great novel, but also of a great film. This represents a double challenge, and most critics seem to think he has not quite risen to it. However, one begs to disagree: Joffe’s version is a stunning evocation of Greeneland, even if it does have some minor flaws.
The current film improves on the book by streamlining the plot. The bent and alcoholic lawyer Prewitt is excised, and the rather creaky plot device of Kolly Kibber and his cards is likewise removed. Thus we have a simpler and faster moving tale. Kite is murdered by Colleoni’s mob; Pinkie, aged seventeen, hitherto a “runner” in Kite’s gang, murders Hale in revenge. Ida Arnold, who is a friend of Hale’s, as well as being the manageress of the café where the girl Rose works, determines to bring Hale’s murderer to justice – and it is Rose, the waitress, who has the crucial evidence that can hang Pinkie. Rose finds herself in a tug of war between Pinkie and his nemesis Ida.
The plot represents a pretty standard sort of gangster thriller; and indeed one could object to the plot engine (of which the film makes relatively little, but which dominates the book) that Pinkie must marry Rose in order to stop her giving evidence against him. But the real interest, even though the gangster violence is conveyed with great and terrifying panache, is in the characterisation. Pinkie, ably played by Sam Riley, who looks rather like Leonardo di Caprio, is a chillingly unattractive lost soul, and he knows it. “Those atheists, they don’t know nothing,” he says, in a line lifted straight from the novel. And Riley’s performance is a convincing picture of damnation in action. Pinkie is not amoral, but rather immoral – someone who knows that his actions are wrong, but who is powerless to repent: a damned soul. Riley is mesmerising in the role.
As he sits with Rose (a wonderful performance by Andrea Riseborough) in a depressing café, he thoughtlessly pinches the skin on her hand. “You can go on doing that, if you like,” she says. Rose’s motivation is problematic, both in the novel and the earlier film, but here the broad hint is that she is a girl who wants to be mistreated, a masochist. This damaged young woman drifts naturally towards Pinkie, a stranger to love, certainly frigid, and quite possibly, if the photograph of him and Kite is anything to go by, a homosexual.
If this sounds unutterably bleak, well, it is, and it is meant to be. And this is precisely the point the film is trying to make: the atheists have got it wrong. Pinkie and Rose are what life is like. Ida Arnold, played by Helen Mirren, a blowsy good time girl, who is not averse to a bottle of champagne, as well as the usual port and lemon, shared with a “gentleman friend”, Ida, who stands for sex, and fun, and drink, and some sort of worldly justice, really has no idea about the true nature of the world. But Pinkie and Rose do know what life is about – it is a game that has the highest possible stakes. Rose may not be over bright, but she does know more of human existence than Ida ever will.
But how Catholic a film is this? In the end, horrible as Pinkie is, there is a certain tragic splendour to him and Rose which Ida and her sidekick Corkery (played by John Hurt) totally lack. This movie belongs to the young people. Atheists will hate this film; they will try and explain the diabolical Pinkie away as some sort of social misfit, and Rose as a product of domestic abuse and the slums; well, they are all that. But there is an added and transformative element to them: Pinkie is more than just bad, he is evil – a concept that atheism cannot really handle, any more than it can explain saintliness. In the end, Pinkie, as much as any saint, though for a diametrically opposed reason, compels you to belief in God. “Those atheists, they don’t know nothing” – and this superb film proves it.