“No thanks, let’s go and see that other one where Romeo and Juliet are garden gnomes”.
Being turned down yet again, I concluded it was going to be impossible to persuade anyone to come and see Rowan Joffe’s remake of the British iconic classic, Brighton Rock. When asking anyone if they wanted to go, the responses ranged from complete apathy to deep suspicion by those who loved the 1947 adaptation of Graham Greene’s original novel. The critics were also unenthusiastic; the Guardian described it as “not unenjoyable”, Mark Kermode concluded it was “an interesting idea” and Little White Lies called it “staggeringly forgettable”. With such a feeling of indifference why should Brighton Rock be given another chance?
Fundamentally the plots of the two films are the same. Pinkie Brown, here played by Sam Riley (Control), is head of a protection racket operating in Brighton. After committing a murder, a young waitress called Rose is implicated and Pinkie, driven by his Catholic guilt, goes to extreme lengths to avoid the gallows. The story focuses on their relationship as Pinkie’s hateful manipulation contrasts against Rose’s naïve devotion. Pinkie is pursued by Ida Arnold, a woman with Rose’s interests at heart, and Mr Colleoni, the leader of a rival gang who is looking to absorb Pinkie’s racket into his own gangster dealings. Joffe stays faithful to this narrative and his remake doesn’t suffer for it.
The key adaptation here is Joffe moving the setting from the back streets of inter-war Brighton to the 1964 Brighton sea front. A quick history lesson if you haven’t seen Quadrophenia: in 1964 British youth culture was blooming as young people began earning their own money and enjoying a new independence. Working-class subcultures developed, notably the Mods and the Rockers. There was fierce rivalry between these two social groups leading to a notorious month of violent clashes in May 1964 on Brighton sea front. This triggered a national moral panic around younger people as the media contributed to a heightened frenzy around these emerging “folk devils”.
Joffe’s remake uses this historical setting as the backdrop for Pinkie’s demise. The idea is a clever one. Richard Attenborough’s portrayal of Pinkie in 1947 was unnerving because of his baby face whilst committing amoral acts. Joffe has taken this element and developed a new narrative. The surrounding characters have been made older (Ida is played by Helen Mirren, to give you an idea of age), which creates a parallel between the threat of the younger Pinkie and the Mods and Rockers. As Pinkie’s plot unravels, the camera flashes to media coverage of the time and the fears surrounding these young “folk devils”. This is a strong premise which is far more creative and inspiring than most other film remakes.
The older details of the story aren’t squeezed to fit around the updated setting. For instance, in the 1947 adaptation Pinkie’s bracket operates at the local racecourse. In Joffe’s 2011 remake, Pinkie’s dealings operate through betting shops, such as the one owned by Phil Corkery, played by John Hurt. It’s a smooth and stylish transition that adds to the story of Pinkie’s crimes rather than detracts from it.
Brighton in 1964 is a blank canvas for breathtaking cinematic moments. John Mathieson’s cinematography captures a crumbling post-war Brighton compared to the throngs of holiday-makers in the 1947 original, and makes Joffe’s Brighton Rock a very attractive piece of cinema. Shots of Pinkie escorting Spicer on a scooter surrounded by a mob of Mods is particularly memorable, while Pinkie making a desperate escape as the Mods and Rockers kick several shades of black and blue into each other is a great cinematic climax.
In this sense, Joffe’s re-situating of the story has succeeded where many film remakes fail: it avoids the fatal error of feeling pointless. The historical situation is as vital to the story as it was in the original, which is a testament to the strength of this adaptation. With upcoming remakes and reboots this year including Footloose, which will no doubt enjoy commercial success, it is tragic that genuinely innovative films such as Joffe’s Brighton Rock will pass so many people by.
I’m not going to pretend this film is a masterpiece. It has it’s problems including clunky pacing, undeveloped characters and a potentially implausible scenario (no more so than the 1947 version though), which don’t make it a completely satisfying experience. However, it is well worth watching as the cast provide fine performances and as I have already mentioned, the cinematography is stylish and compelling. So as we prepare ourselves to watch a stream of pointless remakes such as Cliffhanger, Joffe’s Brighton Rock reminds us that sometimes remakes can be as creative and enjoyable as the originals they aspire to.
This installment of ‘In Defence Of…’ was written by Sam Lewis. You can follow Sam on Twitter here.