The success of the London Film Festival’s annual Surprise Film screening isn’t exactly dependent on the surprise element: more often than not, the film’s identity can be pinpointed in advance simply by asking yourself which title you most expected to find in the festival lineup, and then didn’t.
But even if pretty much everyone sitting in the Leicester Square theater three years ago knew they were about to see “No Country for Old Men,” that didn’t stop the keen applause, peppered with whoops of approval, when the title finally flashed on screen. Ditto the equally predictable-but-welcome selection of “The Wrestler” the following year. It’s a bit like actually getting what you asked for on Christmas morning: the unwrapping is a mere formality, but the result satisfies nonetheless.
Festival director Sandra Hebron did pull a genuine surprise last year, when the consensus expectation of “Where the Wild Things Are” was dashed by the PSA-style opening of Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story.” Still, by last night, Twitter-abetted speculation had narrowed so conclusively around Rowan Joffe’s “Brighton Rock” — it being the most conspicuously absent Britfilm at a British festival, after all — that anything else would have been a jaw-dropper. (To Hebron’s evident vexation, it was the first title shouted out when she played her annual “guess-the-movie” game with the audience.)
But when the house lights dimmed, and the mere sight of the distributor’s logo tipped us off that it was indeed the film we were all anticipating, something strange happened (or didn’t, to be precise) — there was no reaction from the audience whatsoever. No applause, no catcalls, not so much as a collective “aha.” Admittedly, expectations for “Brighton Rock” had been slightly tempered by a soft reception at Toronto last month, but this was still something of an ill omen. And as it turned out, things got no better from there.
As one of those who had been looking forward to a new go-round of Graham Greene’s masterful moral thriller — and who doesn’t hold the Boulting Brothers’ beloved 1947 adaptation sacred — I haven’t even the heart to write a formal review of Joffe’s nervously botched update. But I will say that scarcely a potential avenue for error has been left unexplored here, as the film’s self-conscious (and technically over-egged) noir stylings bristle against a clearly overworked script that fidgets to no effect with Greene’s plotting, with a cast that never coalesces floating somewhere amid the wreckage. Little wonder a US distributor has been shy to step forward, even as the film plays accessibly enough.
Joffe, whose cool, crisp script for “The American” raised my hopes for his work here, has taken the clammy underworld milieu and taut suspense narrative of Greene’s self-professed “entertainment” as a cue for a full-throttle homage to 1940s film noir, thereby working a genre groove that lies somewhere between the novel’s pre-WWII antiquity and the new film’s rather arbitrarily selected setting of 1964. It’s a reasonable enough route to take in terms of mise-en-scène, but it also lends the material a distant, self-regarding concern with presentation that doesn’t gel with the urgent moral code and Catholic curiosity that Greene used pulp-leaning tropes to make more immediate. “Brighton Rock” cannot help being a period piece, which its source novel was not, but it can avoid being about being a period piece — and it chooses not to.
It doesn’t help that John Mathieson’s gimmick-heavy lensing — which sometimes blurs the line between shadowy atmospherics and sheer inscrutable darkness — and Martin Phipps’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink orchestral score never achieve the noir authenticity the director requires of them, instead lending the film the impression of a boy trying on his dad’s fedora; Phipps’s contribution, a broad hodgepodge of rhythmic approaches streaked with anachronistic choral shrieks, is the worst offender yet in the Great Overscoring Epidemic of 2010.
Some consolation, at least, is to be found in James Merifield’s intelligent, resourceful production design — a veritable shoo-in for a lone Oscar nod, should a distributor step forward in time — which brightly uses alternative locales to conjure the long-since-renovated seediness of Brighton pier in the 1960s, even if the film lingers upon it so lovingly that the actors become a mere side dish in many scenes.
Not that said actors are doing much to pull the focus. Sam Riley’s biggest problem isn’t that he’s a decade (and change) older than the novel’s psychotic 17 year-old antihero Pinkie Brown — it’s that his perma-frowny performance conjures all of the character’s cruelty with none of the accompanying sour, often oblivious, wit. As his dumbly adoring child-bride Rose, Andrea Riseborough fares a little better, hitting her stride in the character’s most quietly needy moments, but succumbing to overplayed Underplaying towards the tragic climax and coda.
Joffe must share the blame for these uncertain lead performances, but nobody is more ill-served by him than Helen Mirren. Ostensibly miscast to begin with, she is still utterly hamstrung by the script’s decision to gut cunning, occult-dabbling slattern-turned-vigilante Ida Arnold — one of the most cryptically fascinating female characters in modern fiction — of both her backstory and her solo scenes, while giving her (presumably in the interests of streamlining matters) an extraneous new relationship to Rose. As well as likely rendering her insistent quest to take Pinkie down inexplicable to anyone unfamiliar with the novel, the move further dilutes the novel’s religious subtext.
That very subtext is something that Joffe, in a tellingly tetchy and defensive post-film Q&A, insisted was still very much on the film’s mind, though it takes more than a few crosses on screen to convince me of that. His explanation for shifting the action to the 1960s Mod scene was similarly unpersuasive: citing the stream of “angry young man” narratives that flooded British theater and cinema in the late 1950s, he argued for Pinkie — less an angry young man than a full-blooded sociopath — as a neat fit for that generation, adding a further strain of identity confusion to this already unwieldy neo-noir. “If ‘Brighton Rock’ isn’t about young men railing against an older generation, then I don’t know what it’s about,” Joffe asserted. It’s the most crushing of many disappointments in his film that only the second half of that statement is true.