Writer-director Rowan Joffe engages in some provocative switcheroos in “Brighton Rock,” his adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel.
Greene’s story, about an amoral teenaged gangster and the waitress for whom he harbors a sociopathic mixture of tenderness and contempt, took place in the English seaside town of the 1930s.
Recalling The Who’s “Quadrophenia,” Joffe has set this hardboiled morality tale in 1960s Brighton, where Mods and Rockers are setting off a youthquake while old-school hoods duke it out on the beach below.
It’s a clever conceit, and there are times when Pinkie Brown — “Brighton Rock’s” repellent antihero — blends right in with both crowds as he dons a razor-sharp blue suit and steals a mirror-festooned motorcycle.
What’s more, he’s played here by Sam Riley, in a performance that often recalls his breakout role as Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in “Control.” Like Curtis, Pinkie possesses a certain laconic magnetism and a penchant for skinny ties; but he isn’t nearly as talented, to which his impulsively ruthless rule of his tatty boardwalk empire attests.
The breakout in “Brighton Rock” is Andrea Riseborough, who plays Pinkie’s besotted love interest, Rose, a slightly dim, fatally naïve tea shop server who falls for Pinkie and won’t let anyone — including her well-meaning boss, played by a thin-lipped Helen Mirren — dissuade her. (Riseborough joins Shirley MacLaine in “Some Came Running” as one of the screen’s great martyred goddesses of self-abnegation.)
“Brighton Rock” was already adapted into a movie, in 1947, with Richard Attenborough in the lead role. It’s difficult to deny that Greene’s meditation on Catholic morality, devotion and self-deception wasn’t better served by that era’s relatively pared-down production values rather than Joffe’s stylized visuals and insistently foreboding musical score, a pastiche of somber choirs and thudding tympanies.
That over-muchness particularly hurts “Brighton Rock” at the windswept end of the affair, when the story’s highly pitched emotions call for restraint, above all else.
Still, there’s a lovely moment with Mirren and John Hurt that helps send “Brighton Rock” toward its final note of tenderness. With so much style to burn, Joffe handles the tinge of Greene-ian ambivalence just right.