The movie BRIGHTON ROCK (2010) is certainly a crime thriller, replete and complete in and of itself as such, with knife-fights, murder, double and triple crosses, and police corruption. And Graham Greene, who wrote the book it is based on, saw it as such, as a potboiler, as cheap entertainment, as pulp fiction for the very mass culture that he openly despises in the book. It manages to be more than that, though, even in this, the second movie version, by setting up some interesting contrasts between the religious and the secular but ethical life, about devotion both religious and romantic, about the haves and the have-nots, and about the ability, or lack thereof, of ever reaching self-awareness.
Brighton is a resort town on the Southeast Coast of England, a place where working and middle class yahoos and bozos go to dance at a pavilion under the stars while saccharine and syrupy love songs play into the salty night air; a place where you can stroll the boardwalk and eat cotton candy, or the eponymous Brighton Rock-Candy; where you can have your picture taken with your girl by a roving photographer with a shtick and a patter as big as his camera; where you can rent a little chair and sit on the rocky beach in the cool British weather and imagine you are on holiday in some Victorian novel, richer and more sophisticated than you ever will be. The movie gives us the Brighton of 1964, when British youths called mods and rockers clashed with the police (bogies) and each other in seaside resorts all along that Southeast Coast and where gangsters struggling to control the race track gambling in the benighted town kill each other with knives under the boardwalk, where the crass entertainment of the noon time world is counterpointed by the greed and, ultimately, the violence, that drives the whole tawdry enterprise.
Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley) is at the center of this utterly dark thriller. He is not the kind of character who ever changes, this Pinkie, although there are times when you are fooled by your experience with other kinds of books and movies into thinking he will. He is the youngest member of his gang, and it seems like inflicting pain is both his vocation and avocation. While the other gang members get drunk and try to bed the decidedly meretricious girls around town, he pulls the wings off bugs and kills people. His preferred weapon is his trusty knife, but anything to hand will do, like the rock he uses to dispatch one rival gang member. That rival gang member had killed his boss, who may or may not have been a kind of father figure to Pinkie. The movie doesn’t really try to establish a motivation for Pinkie’s savagery, although you can find many candidates if you go looking—his extreme impoverishment, growing up a vicious underworld and so growing vicious, his desire to be a “man” in a world where being one means being ruthless, brutal and without remorse.
Pinkie doesn’t seem to believe in anything, but he does. He certainly has no connection, other than as parasite, to his fellow human beings, but he does have a relationship, however twisted, with God. He calls himself a “Roman” (Catholic) and tells his girlfriend (and then wife) Rose (Andrea Riseborough): “course there’s a hell, flame, damnation, torments.” She’s a Roman too, but while Pinkie’s version of Catholicism is about damnation (and somehow avoiding it through prayer, although he doesn’t ask Jesus to help him stop killing), hers is about God’s mercy and kindness, and she believes in God with the same blind fervor she believes in Pinkie, in spite of all the evidence Pinkie is a deranged psychopath who doesn’t love anyone, and even after she is forced to admit he is a murderer.
Pinkie marries her because he doesn’t want her to testify to what she has seen, which could get him sent over for murder, or at least help the police nail him for it. And still she believes in him. It is heartbreaking. They get married by a Justice of the Peace after Pinkie bribes her father to allow his under-aged daughter to wed him (they haggle over the price in a scene that left me wondering whether to laugh or cry). The bride struggles to keep up with Pinkie as they walk over, carrying her dowry in a cardboard suitcase, wearing a pillbox hat and lipstick. The ceremony is a horrible and comic and grotesque mockery of a romantic church marriage, the best man being a fellow thug, and the best woman a cleaning lady whom they pay to be one. It is at this juncture that Pinkie decides to worry over his mortal soul, not for the killings and the crass seduction of the innocent girl, but because they didn’t get wed in the church: “This is sin, mortal sin, it’ll be no good ever going to church again.” Pinkie’s version of redemption seems to consist of somehow following the very complex rules of a divine game—a game where you go to hell not for murder but for forgetting and eating meat on Friday, or by not getting in a good act of contrition before some rival gangster guns you down.
And so that is where the suspense comes from in this movie—will Rose wise up? Will Pinkie kill her? Will Pinkie change and learn to love Rose, who says to Pinkie over and over that he can trust her, and that without him she would die? It is easy to root for Pinkie to love Rose, and I think we are conditioned to, but he never really gives her, or us, any reason to think he will. He is largely silent, yes, and you can project whatever motives and feelings you want on a silent man, but the words and actions we do get from Pinkie are all vile. Shortly after the marriage, Rose insists he go into a little sound booth on the pier and make a recording for her. He does, and she can’t hear him say “I know you want me to say I love you, but I don’t. I hate you.” Pinkie, perhaps the most violent crayon in the box, is not the smartest, and he figures since they have no record player, he doesn’t have to worry about her ever hearing it.
There is also a kind of detective in this movie, Ida, played by Helen Mirren, who is Rose’s boss at a little café, and she tries to prove Pinkie’s guilt and save Rose from him. With the cops onto Pinkie, and with the rival gang, led by the evil Colleoni (Andy Serkis), who has gone legit and uptown and represents the kind of ostentatious wealth Pinkie covets, all looking to cut him to ribbons, you know that Pinkie doesn’t have much chance of coming out of all of this in one piece.
No plot spoilers here. See if the blowsy, irreligious, sensuous and forthrightly sexual Ida, who does what she does not to get into heaven, but because it is right, can save Rose. See if Pinkie, who aspired to take Colleoni’s place, can do it. And don’t be too quick to turn off the movie at the end, because there is an emotionally climactic scene that takes place after the climax of the action that has to be seen to be believed. It is melodrama of the highest order, but intelligent and entertaining just the same. Like Brighton Rock-Candy, it may not nourish, but it satisfies.
© 2015 Mike Welch