Graham Greene's "Brighton Rock," an undisputed classic of 20th-century British literature, gets a major facelift in its latest film adaptation. The story, mixing pulp violence and religious symbolism, is set in the English beachfront resort that promises visitors heavenly gaiety. Probe beneath the jolly façade, however, and you find a fallen world of sin and squalor.
First-time director Rowan Joffe updates the 1937 tale of gang murders to the early '60s, when rival youth gangs of mods and rockers rioted in Brighton.
Those adolescent troublemakers pale in comparison to Pinkie (Sam Riley, radiating DiCaprio-level intensity), a junior thug using his straight razor to move up the criminal ladder. Pinkie is overwhelmed by physical urges, unable to resist his violent impulses and at war with his sexual desires. Greene's writing is steeped in Catholic doctrine, and Riley silently communicates this sinner's dilemma: Why did God build these things into me if he only wants to punish me for them?
Perversely, he's willing to accept damnation in exchange for worldly power, even selling out his own crew to curry favor with Brighton's top crime lord. When Pinkie kills a member of a rival gang, he must deal with Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a guileless waitress who may be a witness. His choices are to kill her or seduce and marry her so she can't be compelled to testify against him.
Rose's fearless tearoom boss, Ida (Helen Mirren), wiser to the ways of men than her gullible employee, makes it her business to sabotage Pinkie's plans. Mirren, John Hurt and Andy Serkis make strong impressions as Brighton's old guard, and Riley commits unreservedly to the part of the cold, calculating antihero. Riseborough makes doe-eyed, timid Rose good enough to offer Pinkie the love that could redeem him, yet too weak to oppose his evil plans.
Joffe commits the novice director's mistake of using every visual trick in the book and a few not yet recorded. His dramatic approach is to limit each scene to a single note and play that one through a bullhorn very loud.