Brighton Rock (review)

He Loves Her, He Loves Her Not…

There’s a moment early in Brighton Rock, a simple jump cut, that is downright heartstopping in how it plays with our expectations about gangster dramas, about love stories, about where the two might intersect. First-time feature director Rowan Joffe — son of director Roland Joffe — opens his darkly noirish story a few minutes earlier with a stylishly atmospheric seaside murder, all faces in shadow and blood leaking out onto a nighttime pier… but this one jump cut, out in the light of day and coming hard on the heels of a moment tied up in romance and seduction, is far more wickedly unsettling. It sets the tone for the whole rest of the film, when we’re never sure who’s feeling what, or why, or to what extremes they’re capable of going.
Call this a thriller of emotional suspense. Joffe, adapting Graham Greene’s novel of the same name [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], has moved the timeframe up from the novel and the first 1947 cinematic version to the 1960s: 1964, to be precise, when youth riots were rocking England and the sexual revolution was about to explode. The two larger cultural happenings brewing in the background add extra layers of impetus to everything that happens between Pinkie (Sam Riley), a low-level mob enforcer, and Rose (Andrea Riseborough: Never Let Me Go, Happy-Go-Lucky), a tearoom waitress whom Pinkie romances — or pretends to romance — in order to retrieve a particular bit of evidence from a crime that the meek young woman doesn’t even realized she’s a witness to. The nearly unacknowledged backdrop of seething angry and longed-for freedom underscores and contrasts with everything they both are, not the least of which is wracked by Catholic guilt and duty.

Riley slinks across the screen like a wounded Leonardo DiCaprio, or a young Chris Noth, bottled up and scowling at the world but fuming with rage underneath; is it possible that he genuinely comes to love Rose, genuinely finds in her gentleness an escape from the violence of his life? The smallest of movements and the tiniest flitter of facial expressions on Riley’s part keep us wondering. Riseborough, on the other hand, skitters like a scared mouse: Can she possibly be so ignorant of the danger and scheming of Pinkie’s world that she believes he really loves her… and if she is and does, why does she let him treat her the terrible way he does? (He threatens to throw her off a cliff — while they’re standing on the edge of a cliff! — and she loves him even more for it.) It would seem sadistic on the story’s part if later hints of the hell poor Rose is escaping by throwing her lot in with Pinkie didn’t make her seem downright sensible. Which then raises more questions: Is, perhaps, Rose more manipulative than she seems?

Whatever is happening between Pinkie and Rose, it’s the very opposite of romance, and watching it is a brutal experience. Even the light moments Joffe — who’s previously worked on screenplays for The American and 28 Weeks Later — throws in are disconcerting… such as Andy Serkis (Inkheart, Flushed Away) as the Brighton crime lord Pinkie both despises and longs to work for, who oozes through his few scenes in such a way that laughing at him even from the safety of a dark cinema seems risky.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about this hugely unsettling film is that whatever aspects that may be positive — maybe Pinkie does indeed fall in love with Rose — could well be in our own imaginations and nowhere else. It makes for an unease that lingers long after the film is over.

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