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A Devil And An Angel, In Love In 'Brighton Rock'

Sam Riley (left) as Pinkie Brown, and Andrea Riseborough as Rose, in Rowan Joffe's adaptation of Graham Greene's 1938 novel <em>Brighton Rock</em>.
Alex Bailey
IFC Films
Sam Riley (left) as Pinkie Brown, and Andrea Riseborough as Rose, in Rowan Joffe's adaptation of Graham Greene's 1938 novel Brighton Rock.

The new version of the film Brighton Rock opens with a phone booth and a foggy night in 1964. A gangster pleads for help as two armed assassins chase him down a rainy street. His associate, a teenage boy named Pinkie Brown, can't stop his murder, but he vows to avenge the death and take over the horse-racing racket from the mob boss who ordered the hit. But then a girl shows up and upsets Pinkie's plans to dominate the town of Brighton.

Rowan Joffe wrote and directed this new adaptation of Graham Greene's 1938 novel, which was filmed once before, in 1947, and starred a pre-knighthood Richard Attenborough as Pinkie Brown. Sam Riley takes over the role in the new version, and Andrea Riseborough plays Rose, the girl in his life. The film also stars Helen Mirren and John Hurt in smaller roles.

The 2011 remake packs serious star power with John Hurt (as Phil Corkery) and Helen Mirren (as Ida, who seeks to bring Pinkie to justice).
Alex Bailey / IFC Films
IFC Films
The 2011 remake packs serious star power with John Hurt (as Phil Corkery) and Helen Mirren (as Ida, who seeks to bring Pinkie to justice).

You couldn't very well change the location of the book, since its title contains the name of the British town where the action takes place, but Joffe, the son of British director Roland Joffe, decided to set his film version — his debut as a writer and director — in a time that the earlier filmmakers couldn't have imagined: the year 1964.

"Greene himself said that of all his novels, Brighton Rock was the one least informed by the documentary reality of the time, and in fact, what's extraordinary about the book is its prescience," Joffe tells NPR's Scott Simon. "It certainly predicts a dominant youth and depicts a war between that youth and tradition and older generations and authority. And therefore it seemed like an iconic time to set the book in filmic terms because of the famous mods and rockers riots in heavily inverted commas because they weren't really riots, certainly not by contemporary London standards, where we've just suffered very real and very widely spread riots, but there was a sense very definitely that Pinkie's story was the story of youth overturning tradition, and 1964 was so visually exemplary of that particular battle that I couldn't think of a better backdrop."

Riseborough, who calls herself "a ferocious reader," says that before she started working on the film, Brighton Rock was one of the Greene novels she hadn't picked up. But when she started reading, she tells Simon, she found herself frustrated.

"I went to Rowan and I said, 'God, Ro, I'm not sure this is really helping. It's like the inner workings of Pinkie's brain. I don't need to know this diatribe. I need to focus more on what Rose believes, which is that he's utterly in love with her because she wants to believe it,' " Riseborough says. "And Rowan said, 'God what are you doing? Stop! Stop reading!' "

According to Riseborough, there's enough to keep track of on any given day that additional perspectives can be a bother.

"On a film set you may wake up, get picked up at 5:30 in the morning, give birth, be 40, be 35, be 12 and then have lunch," Riseborough says. "And then in the afternoon cry a bit, kind of die, and then give birth again. Who knows? Within all of that, and then keeping tabs on where you are within the landscape of a piece, the last thing that you need to know are things that you'll have to then later forget artistically. And Rowan was very supportive and protective of that because it enabled a far more innocent performance."

Why does Rose, who is so innocent, love Pinkie, who is vicious and rotten? Riseborough says that her character starts the film in "almost total obscurity, in the sense that she has no want or even need to be noticed." Pinkie is "a guy who's almost incredibly charismatic and dashing and charming and dynamic and almost otherworldly," and the fact that he notices her "is just the most exciting time of her life."

"A perfect example is the moment she watches Pinkie recording a record that he gives to her," Riseborough says. She can't hear what he's saying, though the audience can. "That's the most blissful moment. And people have since said, 'That must have been so harrowing,' and I've said, 'Well of course it wasn't.' She had no idea what he might be saying, and it was the most beautiful exciting thing, the idea of what he might be saying."

Joffe agrees with Riseborough's take on Rose. "Greene is often described as having penned a portrait of pure evil in Pinkie, and nothing could be further from the truth. For a start, Greene was a Catholic and therefore would have found the idea of pure evil and humanity as slightly oxymoronic. Humanity is always capable of redemption," he says.

"There is a vein of gold in Pinkie and that vein of gold is a troubled tenderness towards Rose. And that means the extraordinary and unpredictable end of the movie that I don't wish to give away can really be seen in two ways. It can be seen as a coincidence or it can be seen as a miracle. And we have to remember we're watching an adaptation of a writer who believed in miracles."

Plus, Joffe adds, the fact that the audience sees something in Pinkie that Rose can't, or is blinded to by her love, raises the tension. "And that is the very primal thrill of wanting to cheer at the screen, 'Look behind you!' " Joffe says. "But I think it is also enriched by the idea of a love story betwixt a demon and an angel. And I think in some ways that's what Brighton Rock is, and I think it's not often discussed in those terms, but that was the primary reason I wanted to make it. There was a moment in the book — and in the film — where Pinkie says to Rose, 'I'm bad. You're good. We're made for each other.' And that is, if you like, the extremely dark and noirish version of 'You complete me.' But it's central to the story, and just the juxtaposition of good and evil produces its own tension."

Anyway, Riseborough says, don't imagine that just because Rose is good, or naive, that she's weak. "Angels aren't weak," she says. "She has an incredible amount of inner strength and loyalty and I think his interest in her becomes a love of sorts, I truly believe — and this is my objective opinion, outside of Rose — because there's nobody really who has loved him as selflessly. She loves him in an unconditional way, which he respects, I think, and then there is a love that is reciprocated because of that."

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