Brighton Rock

Brighton Rock

Director: Rowan Joffe
Starring: John Hurt, Helen Mirren, Andy Serkis and Sam Riley.
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Runtime: 111 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Strong coarse language and violence

The new film version of Graham Greene’s 1939 novel, Brighton Rock, brings some Catholic themes into prominence. A BBC/UK Film Council production, it is directed by Rowan Joffe, who wrote the screenplay for The American, a Greene-like drama about a burnt-out hitman. His father, Roland Joffe, directed The Mission and City of God as well as the forthcoming film about St Jose Maria Escriva, There be Dragons, all films with Catholic themes.

Greene himself wrote the screenplay for the Boulting Brothers’ 1947 version of Brighton Rock, imbuing it with his frequent themes of sin and the possibilities and impossibilities of redemption. His central character, Pinkie (played with force by Richard Attenborough and now by a sullen Sam Riley) is one of the nastiest of Greene’s villains, young, brash and ambitious, the opposite of that other Greene arch-villain (all smiles and sinister calculation), Harry Lime, from The Third Man. The other central character is the naive young waitress, Rose, who becomes the target of Pinkie’s scheming so that she will not turn a police witness against him for the murders he committed.

The setting of the present film is 1964 rather than Greene’s original 1930s. It is the period of thugs and gangs, of Mods and Rockers and riots, the time just before the abolition of capital punishment in Britain. The film recreates the period and offers the visuals of Brighton, the dark swirling water, the Pier, the Pavilion, the blocks of waterfront flats, streets, tea rooms and bars, as well as dilapidated houses and estates.

It is not usual to have Catholic characters and themes in British films. However, they are a staple of adaptations of Graham Greene novels. There is no shirking of them here. But, what they do show is how little touched by the depth of faith so many Catholics are. Pinkie says he is ‘Roman’ but doesn’t practise, though he says that atheists have got it all wrong denying God and, especially, the existence of Hell. But, there is a moment when he is being chased along the beach, when he drops to his knees and starts reciting the Hail Mary. Rose is devout in a junior primary school kind of way. She is pious, prays the Rosary, goes to Church, lights candles, kneels before the Crucifix.

These depictions could serve as an indictment of the frequent lack of adult follow-up in faith development for so many Catholics – which Greene wrote about in the 1930s, in his screenplay in the 1940s and which is again presented here.

The convert Greene always struggled with the teachings of the Church, not only the moral issues, but the theology of sin, grace, forgiveness and redemption. He believed that literature had, of necessity, to be about sin.

The person of grace in the film is the blowsy Ida (Hermione Baddeley memorable in 1947, Helen Mirren in the current version). She is not a person of faith in any way, except in some goodness in human nature, in her trying to protect Rose, and in a sense of justice that evil should be punished. She is no saint, even at the end, but she does good.

This version of Brighton Rock brings an old way and style of Catholicism centre screen in a drama that is powerful. Audiences might wonder and question. It is not the core Catholicism of believers whose focus is not just on the Passion and death of Jesus but on the Resurrection (a criticism made of Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ).

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