Rowan Joffe was repeatedly obliged to remark upon the fact that his film was not a remake of the Boulting Brothers film but a new version of Graham Greene’s novel. To a large degree, this was a truthful observation, but one egregious miscalculation gave the lie to the notion, and proved that the earlier film version was very much in the filmmaker’s minds when filming in the 21st century. Ironically, both versions were criticised for downplaying the Catholic elements of Greene’s novel but in neither case did this criticism have any real validity. There had, in fact, been some pre-censorship in this regard before the filming of the first version, reluctantly undertaken, as it was felt that Catholics would be offended by the film’s association of the creed with a murderous psychopath at the centre of the narrative, but the queasy conflict of moral values actually remained intact in the Boulting Brothers version and the newer Rowan Joffe film. Crucially, both films retained (in different forms) the author/convert’s curious espousal of Catholic values which appear to run counter to the proselytising aspects of the religion. There could rarely be said to be a positive presentation of Catholicism in either film (an echo of the author’s original bleak conception, in fact); Pinkie, in the new version is clearly the remnant of an abused childhood, and has been imbued by his cradle Catholicism with a fatalistic vision of hell (the rewards of heaven have no place in his Manichean world view (Rose is ‘good’, he is ‘bad’) — and more precisely than Attenborough, Sam Reilly, the Pinkie of the new version, present the character’s belief in a truly cold-eyed and negative fashion. Similarly, no special case is made for Catholicism in the character of the waitress Rose who falls under the youthful thug’s spell: Carol Marsh, adequate in the first film at conveying the naivety and unworldliness of the character presents no positive aspects that have belief has brought her, while Andrea Riseborough in the Rowan Joffe film (in an assumption of the role which is far better written and played) presents the vulnerable waitress as something of a lamb to the slaughter, with a simple-minded un-thought-through acceptance of the tenants of her faith. Certainly, both films maintain the notion that it’s hard to believe that reading a Graham Greene novel (or, for that matter, watching a film adaptation of the same) ever converted anyone to Catholicism. The incendiary issue for the more rigorous adherent of the faith is, of course, sex, and the latter film is able to treat Pinkie’s stunted sexuality in a more frank fashion – his clumsy, maladroit forcing of his hand between Rose’s thighs on the couple’s wedding night is emblematic of both his crude approach to sex and his perception of the expectations his new wife will have (it’s a realistic touch that we see a post-coital Rose unfazed by this approach – her perception of sex, courtesy of the couple’s shared religious beliefs — accords with those of her insensitive husband).
Perhaps the signal achievement of Joffe’s film is the fact that it managed to establish its own identity under the massive shadow of its predecessor; before the film was made, the director and his associates were treated to the response of the pointlessness of Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot colour remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho (justified in the case of the Van Sant film case) – what was the point, it was asked, of remaking Brighton Rock? Initially, a viewing of the film suggests that Sam Reilly possesses not an iota of the basilisk intensity of Attenborough’s original assumption of the role of Pinkie, but Reilly’s more lower-case incarnation pays dividends, and makes his destruction the more telling; this Pinkie is always destined for a grim end; his hubris is of a part with his innocence (which, in its way, is not a million miles away from that of the waitress Rose). And in an echo of the extreme razor-wielding violence of the original film (which so upset the censors), a new and far more gruesome death is devised for the young killer; in a struggle with a another gangster, a vial of acid that Pinkie is struggling to use is crushed above his own face, reducing it to raw meat — he staggers to the edge of a cliff and ends up a broken and bloody object on the shales below.
There are many significant changes effected for the relationships between the various characters in the novel (avenging angel Ida, for instance, is now the owner of a cafe that employs rose — and, ironically, the always reliable Helen Mirren is able to make considerably less impression in this role than Hermione Baddeley in the far more conventionally written original film); having the setting updated to 1964 (allowing for Mods-versus-Rockers riots to cover one of the more violent murders) is largely felicitous, and Rowan Joffe has a particularly strong sense of Brighton itself, even though (unlike the earlier film); much of it is not filmed on location in the town, as Eastbourne down the coast, far less developed, retains more of the character that Greene’s original setting possessed.
With the noir-ish violence cranked up to appropriate levels for modern sensibilities (though knives largely replace the famous razors), Joffe makes the most of the other elements (such as some dramatic cinematography showing the sea as a dark and threatening presence) to grant the narrative and almost elemental quality, while the various integuments of life in 1960 Brighton (clothes, and other fashion, modes of speech, etc.) are handled in an intelligent fashion that does intelligent service to the demands of the narrative rather than drawing attention to itself in pointlessly pictorial fashion.
Returning to Rowan Joffe’s claim that his Brighton Rock was not a remake of the Boulting Brothers version but a new take on the novel, the least successful moment in the modern film is in fact a recreation of a compromise arrive at in the earlier movie. As Rose is listening to the recording reluctantly made for her in a pierside booth by Pinkie, she is spared from hearing the outpouring of bile and dislike from her lover by the simple expedient of the needle sticking in the groove as Pinkie utters the words ‘I love you’ (and before he makes clear his true feelings of hatred). In both films, the horror of what Rose is to hear when she takes a record home is (unlike Green’s novel) spared the character for the sake of what appears to be a sentimental ending — doubly ironic, given that both Attenborough and Reilly strongly convey the character’s pathological inability to love); this compromise is further compounded in the new version by a shot of a crucifix (one, that appears to be divested of irony) and a burst of choral music on the soundtrack — a rare miscalculation in the latter regard, given that the scoring by Martin Phipps of Joffe s film is truly unorthodox, with everything from ominous Bernard Hermann-style brass chords to nervous jazz scoring yoked in to considerable effect.
What Joffe’s largely commendable effort, lacks, though is the sheer visceral intensity of the earlier version, and it seems likely that the judgement of history on both films will not shake the primacy of the earlier films hold on the public imagination.