Cheap, cheery, and a little sleazy, the seaside city of Brighton has long been a favorite of vacationing English families and dirty weekenders alike with its colorful boardwalk attractions and its anything-goes carnival atmosphere. Brighton Rock, a second adaptation of a Graham Greene novel set in Brighton’s underworld, makes good use of the tension between the wholesome and the unsavory that helps define Brighton. Vacationers pose for novelty photos and take turns with the midway games and nobody pays much attention to what goes on under the boardwalk.
But while the new Brighton Rock makes a great case for Brighton being a fine setting for a grim crime drama, it only intermittently looks like the sort of film that setting deserves. Sam Riley plays an up-and-coming Brighton tough who, after seeing his mentor murdered by rival thugs, decides to seize control of the gang and exact revenge. He encounters one stumbling block immediately when a photographer snaps an incriminating souvenir photo and leaves the claim tag with an owlish waitress (Andrea Riseborough). To manage the situation, Riley first romances then marries Riseborough, all the while resorting to more desperate and violent measures to ensure his place in the criminal establishment.
Rowan Joffe (son of Roland Joffe) provides busy, if never particularly distinctive direction, but it’s the leads that continually threaten to sink the film. Riseborough never fully conveys whether her character is merely naïve or genuinely slow-witted, and Riley, in a role played by Richard Attenborough the first time around, is even more cryptic here than he was as Ian Curtis in Control. Joffe gets some mileage out of contrasting his beautiful face with the bad deeds his character commits, but Riley never provides much of a sense of what makes his character run, beyond brute ambition. Some veteran actors do much better work in supporting roles, particularly Helen Mirren, John Hurt, and Andy Serkis as a not-easily-flustered rival ganglord. And Joffe’s decision to update the action from the 1930s to the mods-vs.-rockers clashes of the early ’60s would be ingenious if Brighton Rock found a way to make that setting its own. Too often it just feels like its bloody-minded characters are enacting a too-thin story on the fringes of Quadrophrenia.