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MOVIE REVIEW: Brighton Rock

Directed by Rowan Joffe. Starring Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Helen Mirren

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Rowan Joffe’s overstuffed gangster film Brighton Rock is the most frustrating kind of debut: obvious, self-indulgent, and presumptive. Joffe’s overtly stylistic aesthetics (roving camera movement, constantly booming instrumentals) initially fits the violent story of Pinky, a young criminal upstart who attempts to overthrow an organized crime boss (Andy Serkis) in the coastal town of Brighton. A deafening foghorn serenades a series of crashing ocean waves in the opening moments, an evocative audible parallel to the unseen psychosis hiding behind Pinky’s dapper smile and ruthless ambition. But Joffe’s moody handling of Graham Greene’s 1938 source novel quickly becomes heavy-handed, virtually crushing all sense of subtext and hollowing out each character until there’s nothing left but surface rot.

Updated from its 1930s origin to the chaotic time period of the 1960s, Joffe links the conflict between Pinky and senior gangsters with the famous youth riots between the Mods and Rockers dominating the British headlines at the time. The two stories physically overlap during an assassination attempt under the Palace Pier, an elaborate boardwalk dominating much of Brighton Rock’s wide shots. The lengthy sequence is dynamic, brutal, and manic, but Joffe is never able to muster this urgency again. From here, the filmmakers seem content to recycle the same sadistic scenarios including knifings, betrayals, and threatening conversations. Despite the constant narrative chest thumping, very little actually happens in Brighton Rock, as Pinky runs around town scheming his way into more trouble with almost no dramatic results.

Pinky’s manipulative relationship with Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a mousy barmaid he seduces and then marries in order to keep from testifying against his gang, makes up the central conflict of Brighton Rock. One sequence after another finds Pinky building and then destroying Rose’s romantic hopes, whispering sweet nothings into her ear one moment and hitting her the next. Theirs is a masochistic relationship, double-sided and constantly revealing the worst impulses in each character. The great Helen Mirren is completely wasted as Rose’s concerned boss, who tries to convince her Pinky’s escalating mania is a danger to everyone involved. Of course, Rose doesn’t listen. All this melodrama ends up suffocating the palpable gangster story at the film’s core, further splintering Joffe’s narrative focus. 

Overcomplicated plotting and incoherent pacing mire Brighton Rock in a landscape of simplistic metaphors, most notably the touristy candy stick referenced in the film’s title. The only time Joffe constructs any excitement from genre iconography is when various characters snap out a switchblade, the weapon of choice for Pinky and his brood. The audible pop and reflecting light on the blade is pure cinema, untouched by Joffe’s directorial uncertainty and pandering symbolism. A confectionary noir that dissolves as quickly as cotton candy, Brighton Rock only hints at what Pinky’s brutality represents in terms of his surroundings. Even worse, the generational conflicts inherent to Brighton Rock is given little to no attention, as if it were just an offshoot of Pinky’s tirades instead of the root cause. In this exhausting gangster film, the complex changing of the tides rolls right over the character’s heads.

Brighton Rock is now playing at the Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas.

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  • Rating: 2 of 5