In Brighton Rock, the cold, slate-colored ocean laps the shore of the title town, a wintery resort on the southern coast of England. It's 1964 and there's a gang war on, in which a chilly teen sociopath named Pinky Brown (Sam Riley) is determined to end up top dog. The 1947 version, which launched the career of Richard Attenborough, is a British film noir classic (although it was little seen on these shores before a recent restoration by Rialto Pictures). This remake, which debuted at last year's London Film Festival and has taken its time arriving stateside, has much to recommend it.
Writer director Rowan Joffe has updated the action to the mods and rockers era—somewhat pointlessly perhaps, except to show sinister hordes of rumbling Vespas—but he's clarified the shifting turf loyalties and carved a sharp edge not just on Pinky's sadism (with all the needless gore modern special effects can provide) but also, on the flip side, the masochism of his mousy sweetheart Rose (Andrea Riseborough). He's also kept novelist Graham Greene's focus on the young couple's Catholic faith and their trembling expectations of heaven or hell.
The cinematography has a superb sense of place as well as access; the town of Brighton is no longer concerned about showing its underbelly, as it was in the '40s. The production design, from the seedy rooming houses to the swank hotel where Brighton's godfather (Andy Serkis) rules, is richly detailed, right down to the strategically placed stabs of red. The excellent British cast also includes John Hurt, Phil Davis (the murderous cabbie from Sherlock) and, especially, the peerless Helen Mirren as the hard-boiled Ida, who becomes a reluctant detective when one of her gentleman friends gets caught in the crossfire. Riley is convincing enough but cannot quite summon the terrifying menace of Attenborough's earlier Pinky. Still, Brighton Rock rocks for connoisseurs of British crime drama.