Movie Review: ‘Brighton Rock’ a stylish, familiar noir

Graham Greene’s crime novel “Brighton Rock” previously was made into a 1947 film famously starring Richard Attenborough with a script Greene himself co-wrote. A new version of “Brighton Rock” moves the setting from the late ‘30s to 1964 as the Mods and Rockers were battling it out on Britain’s southeast shore.

You half expect to hear songs from “Quadrophenia” pop up here and there but, alas, no such luck.

This may sound like a jarring shift, but the feature directing debut from screenwriter Rowan Joffe (”28 Weeks Later,” “The American”) does maintain the dark tone and stylish visuals of its noir origins, with dramatic shadows and camera angles that nearly fetishize the genre. Oscar-nominated cinematographer John Mathieson’s work is rapturous to look at, but the film as a whole often feels like an exercise in style over substance, especially as it becomes clear just how many times we’ve seen these kinds of characters in this kind of story before.

Still, Sam Riley and Andrea Riseborough are watchable in a pulpy sort of way as mismatched teenagers awkwardly thrown together during a bloody mob war.

“I’m bad. You’re good. We’re made for each other,” Riley’s ambitious gangster Pinkie assures Riseborough’s innocent waitress Rose. And even though she buys the line, nothing is that simple. A pair of retaliatory killings has the bleak beach town on edge, and Rose had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and witnessing the wrong thing, even though she doesn’t entirely know what she saw.

When Pinkie enters the cafe where she serves customers in a quietly bungling manner, she’s simultaneously frightened and fascinated by his dangerous demeanor. Riley previously starred as doomed Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis in “Control”; he’s got dark-and-brooding down pat. But when he seduces Rose to keep her quiet, she’s giddy rather than repulsed. Helen Mirren co-stars as the restaurant owner who’s been around the block a few times and knows something about young men like Pinkie; she tries to warn Rose about him, but the foolish girl is too far gone.

And her storyline is actually more compelling than that of Pinkie trying to rise to power during this volatile time; there’s more at stake for her. Through a rushed courtship and quickie civil union — which spells eternal damnation for the devout Rose — both of these people grow more frightened. But as Pinkie turns increasingly panicky and reckless, Rose becomes surer of herself in the new role she’s about to assume as a devoted mob moll. Riseborough rises to the occasion, transforming from a shy bunny rabbit of a girl into a defiant, loyal young woman.

Besides the presence of Mirren, John Hurt helps class up the cast as a veteran bookie who helps her put the pieces of these killings together. They’re so good — and make it all look so easy — they make you want to see an entire film of just the two of them, drinking whiskey and flirting instead.

“Brighton Rock,” an IFC Films release, is unrated but contains pervasive language, violence and smoking. Running time: 111 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

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