Brighton Rock Rises Again. Graham Greene Abides.

Here is an early alert for those who have spent most of 2010 being disappointed by movies. At least one great story is coming back to the screen after a long time away. Acclaimed screenwriter Rowan Joffé tries his hand at the directing game next year. For his feature debut, he has selected an auspiciously high-profile story. Brighton Rock, adapted from Graham Greene‘s 1938 novel, is a captivating crime thriller and a chilling exploration of the human capacity for love, betrayal and violence. The first trailer from Optimum Releasing reveals changes in several key details of the novel – not least of which is bringing the narrative forward about thirty years – but the core story seems intact. If all goes right, this will be one beautiful and scary film.


Brighton Rock has been adapted before, and the 1947 film follows the book much more closely. Also known as Young Scarface in the USA, this version stars a very young Richard Attenborough as Pinkie Brown, a vicious teenage gangster fighting recklessly for his life in the criminal underbelly of Brighton. It is a gripping and suspenseful picture, incorporating the novel’s weighty moral themes effortlessly into a harrowing journey through the dark corners of the seaside resort town. The supporting cast includes classic British players Hermione Baddeley, Carol Marsh, and William Hartnell (Doctor Who fans, take note). The director and producer of the film were John and Roy Boulting, later to be renowned in Britain for their collaboration on offbeat comedies, still decades before the Coen Brothers hit the scene.

Poster for the 1947 Boulting Brothers production of Brighton Rock, starring Richard Attenborough

An endangered classic: the 1947 Brighton Rock.
Image courtesy of the British Film Institute.

Joffé’s film stars Sam Riley, best known for portraying Ian Curtis – the doomed frontman of Joy Division – in Anton Corbijn’s movie Control. He looks appropriately gloomy and troubled for the role of Pinkie Brown. The lovely Andrea Riseborough plays Rose, a young woman treading a razor-sharp line between love and fear. Also appearing are British screen royalty Helen Mirren and John Hurt. All the right pieces seem to be in place for a very successful drama.

Graham Greene was known for his visually rich, “cinematic” writing style, which made his work popular for adaptation to the screen. There are several major names on the list of directors to tackle Greene’s work, including Neil Jordan (The End Of The Affair), Fritz Lang (Ministry Of Fear), and Carol Reed (Our Man In Havana and The Third Man, which the author wrote directly for the screen).

From a cold-hearted materialistic standpoint, booksellers worldwide would profit from the success of Brighton Rock on the big screen next year. A tie-in to a popular film is a good way to push a prolific author’s entire body of work. Several years ago, a well-received version of Greene’s The Quiet American, directed by Phillip Noyce and starring Michael Caine, stirred up considerable interest in the author’s work and presumably sold a lot of books.

Richard Attenborough as Pinkie and Carol Marsh as Rose - Brighton Rock

Richard Attenborough and Carol Marsh star in Brighton Rock (1947).

The best news of all is that if Joffé hits a home run with Brighton Rock, then the Boulting Brothers’ film has a good shot at revival. It is next to impossible to locate a copy of this film, at least in the United States. Why Criterion cannot be bothered to sponsor so genuinely grand a film as the 1947 Brighton Rock on DVD is a heartbreaking mystery. No excuse can reasonably answer for it, considering the many dubious and seemingly arbitrary selections they have made over the years. Though magnificent in principle, and generally worthy of our love and support, the Criterion Collection still has a lot of catching up to do.

Brighton Rock (2011) poster

Rowan Joffé’s Brighton Rock (2011)
from BBC Films/StudioCanal/Optimum Releasing.

A period drama of substance and weight is always welcome. One that pays tribute to fine literature is even better. With plenty of talent behind it, and a favorable start to its advertising campaign, Brighton Rock promises a great deal. Let us enter the new year with hopes held high for the first of many great trips to the picture show.

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