Pinkie Brown is a hard, mean man with no compassion and only the faintest glimmerings of a soul. Only a few minutes into Brighton Rock, Rowan Joffe's new adaptation of Graham Greene's celebrated novel (previously brought to the screen in 1947), this much has been firmly established. The only trouble is, that seems to be all there really is to know about Pinkie, and nearly two hours of being confronted with a villain who has little to no charm or charisma, only a heart of stone that he uses to punish those around him, gets to be a bit much; it's possible to make a compelling story about the life of a thoroughgoing villain, but the finer points of such a task are clearly lost on Joffe.
In Brighton Rock, Pinkie is played by Sam Riley, best known for his performance as Ian Curtis in the Joy Division biopic Control. Pinkie is a young but hungry member of a mob run by local gangster Spicer (Phil Harris). When Pinkie's mentor Kite (Geoff Bell) is killed by underlings of rival crime boss Colleoni (Andy Serkis), Pinkie has to prove his worth, and goes too far while roughing up Hale (Sean Harris), a twitchy local thug working for Colleoni. Pinkie kills Hale, but not before a roving Boardwalk photographer snaps a picture of Hale with Pinkie and Spicer. The picture was taken while Hale was chatting up Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a waitress at a nearby restaurant who ended up with the claim slip for the photo, and Pinkie is ordered to get the slip and the picture as soon as possible. Rose is sweet, insecure, and painfully shy; Pinkie is ruthless in preying on her vulnerabilities, and allows her to believe he loves her as he winds her around his finger. As Pinkie becomes more ruthless in his desire to take over Spicer's gang, Rose learns more about her boyfriend's violent nature but remains thoroughly devoted to him. However, Ida (Helen Mirren), a woman with a checkered past who runs the restaurant where Rose works, was friends with Hale, and when she becomes aware of Pinkie's criminal nature, she refuses to allow Rose to be sacrificed to his brutal ambitions.
For this adaptation of Brighton Rock, director and screenwriter Rowan Joffe has chosen to set the action in 1964, when the British underworld was becoming increasingly visible in the press, and Mods and Rockers were fighting amongst themselves in Brighton's resort district along the beach. Joffe's choice has certainly given him some powerful visual material to work with, especially after Pinkie steals a scooter and blends in with a pack of Mods rolling through town (not to mention the bloody fights on the beach). But if Joffe's version is flashier than the one John Boulting helmed more than 60 years earlier, it doesn't carry as much weight, and despite a supporting cast of gifted character actors, everything here rides on Sam Riley as Pinkie, and his performance as well as the script's vision of him is fatally flawed. Beyond being a mean bastard, Pinkie lacks any sort of personality, and ultimately his willingness to betray anyone and everyone stops being absorbing and simply becomes predictable; by the time the film comes to an end, any awful thing he does has ceased to have the power to shock. (Pinkie's devout Catholicism also seems shoehorned into the story here, with his faith appearing out of nowhere and disappearing a few minutes later.) The supporting cast might have saved the picture if Joffe had given them more to do; Andrea Riseborough's Rose seems doomed from the moment she steps on screen, but the actress gives her enough depth and soul to make us care about her tragic life, and Helen Mirren reveals a ferocious maternal streak as the worldly Ida. Phil Harris makes Spicer both hard as nails and surprisingly vulnerable, and Andy Serkis as the vain gangster Colleoni and John Hurt as a bookie sweet on Ida are strong enough that it's a shame both are given little more than cameos. Brighton Rock is beautifully crafted, and cinematographer John Mathieson and production designer James Merifield have given the film a marvelously seedy look that recalls the great British "kitchen sink" dramas of the 1960s. But ultimately this new Brighton Rock rings hollow, and doesn't tell us much more than that bad people will usually do bad things -- something that's obvious long before we've even met all the principle characters. Save your time and track down the gripping 1947 version instead.