Monday, May 30, 2011

Brighton the Surface

The main problem a director faces in making Graham Greene’s eminently cinematic Brighton Rock, of course, is that its lead character is 17 years old.

Even if a young Gary Oldman or Leonardo diCaprio were around, they’d still be a hard sell to the money folk. So director Rowan Joffe settled for the untrained Sam Riley, 29 at the time, who had nevertheless garnered a lot of critical praise for his rather romantic portrayal, in retrospect, of punk rocker Ian Curtis of Joy Division in Control.

It was probably the best choice there was, even though Riley looks more like a young and well-fed TS Eliot than having the “starved intensity” of Pinkie, who accurately reflects Hitler’s rise (the book was published in 1938) and pre-dates punk rock by a good 40 years.

If Riley doesn’t quite fit the bill, he has to and does sort of carry the film, and that’s important too. (The only 1947 version of the film in Auckland is in a box on video in an upstairs storeroom at Videon and might take a week to find, I was told, so I can’t compare Riley’s performance with the young Richard Attenborough’s).

What Riley certainly “captures” is Pinkie’s misogynistic revulsion of Rose, even if he isn’t allowed to communicate to us what it is about her that he hates so much. In the film’s most telling scene, as far as Pinkie and Rose (Andrea Riseborough) are concerned, he has to stand in a booth on the pier and record a message of love to her on an instant record-maker. She is standing outside the glass box, freshly married, looking at him with devoted adoration. Her love is not only blind, it’s deaf.

Inside he is spewing his repugnance of her, and all the writer or director needed to add was that he hated her because she reminded him of where he came from. That is, clumsy, tasteless, near-sighted, faithful, common. In short, everything he is and doesn’t want to be.

The other reason why he hates her, of course, is that she intuitively embodies the grace part of being a “Roman” (Catholic). Riseborough looks like any number of infinitely gentle, caring and forgiving Madonnas, eyes modestly lowered, celebrated by countless Italian artists over the ages and is absolutely perfect for the part, visually and otherwise. It is, simply, the most archetypal of the roles, hence its power.

Pinkie, as far as Green is concerned, comes from and is going to an "annihilating eternity".

The next problem is Ida Arnold, the antithesis to Pinkie and Rose. Helen Mirren is hardly in her 30s or 40 and, attractive as she still is in her 60s, you would hardly think of “sucking babies when you looked at her”, though she certainly conveys “an immense store of masculine experiences”.

But then the filmmakers once again had to think about the market, which is mainly American, and Dame Helen had won an Oscar and that counts for a lot in a country that recoiled from the film’s outright misogyny anyway – perhaps they prefer saccharine romance, which could be the same thing - if the 5.9 rating is anything to go by.

But her authoritative Prime Suspect residue, along with John Hurt’s salted Sam, do represent an England of common sense, above all, and in that sense they work a treat. But then, as JM Coetzee writes in his introduction to the Vintage Classics edition, “it is one of Greene’s subtler achievements to put [Ida’s triumph] in doubt as perhaps blinkered and tyrannical”.

The film’s way of echoing that is making her world seem jaded, the cracks in her face too covered over, too white and powdered, just as it manages to show that “the story belongs not to Ida but to Rose and Pinkie”.

They love and hate completely, respectively, and that contrast is evident in the way Brighton is portrayed too. On the surface all seems fun and festivities by the seaside, but under the boardwalk the flick knives are flashing. Blood is flowing. There is a battle for turf, power.

Director Joffe cleverly intercuts one of those vicious battles with the above-board festivities, which works a treat, never forgetting to show the primal power of the icy, night-time Atlantic rolling in too.

Pinkie is what Harold Pinter called “the weasel beneath the cocktail cabinet”. He may be vicious, but he is fighting a hopeless battle. He is punching way above his weight. He resides in places where Eliot’s “smells of steaks in [dank brown] passageways” are nauseating. We sit and watch his demise with fascination and something else: hope. We hope he’ll change, convert, whatever, knowing it will not be so.

Or rather, we ought to. But if this film is as handsome as its look and its lead, then it is not as sharp as his razor, nor as hard as the titular candy. A doomed 17-year-old has our sympathy, a doomed 30-year-old has choices.

All we can wonder at, finally, is how the director is going to portray the final “horror” of the book. How is he going to show Rose, pregnant with Pinkie’s probably malevolent seed, hearing what he recorded for her on the pier that day they got married?

Well, if it takes a little long to get there after the climax, then Joffe gives that bit of vitriol such a clever and ironic twist that a grave Green himself might be smiling with approval.

Neil Sonnekus

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