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Cinema visit: Brighton Rock

So, last week I went to see Brighton Rock. I did not like it one tiny bit and I am now going to try and express exactly why I did not like it. It is most assuredly going to be a little difficult to do so without using too many expletives, but I think it'll be an interesting intellectual challenge. A brief overview of the various things I entirely failed to like would include clichéd, unsympathetic characters, even more clichéd, lazy story-telling and some really troubling themes about religion, violence and acceptance. This is one of those rare occasions when I would actually go beyond simply saying that “I didn't like it” and into “I can argue that it actually isn't objectively very good”.

Now, before I start I wasn't at all surprised to find that I didn't enjoy the damn' thing. I went to see it purely because it was set in a place I know; I've always been fascinated by the little bits of days gone by that are to be found scattered about places like Brighton or Blackpool, places that used to be important, in a word. The trailer made the film look like melodrama in all the bad ways (although melodrama done well can be very fun; I love Wilkie Collins, for example) and as it turned out the trailer was an entirely accurate advert for the film.

I think the most obvious problem was the startling over-reliance on cliché and stereotype to the extent that the film-maker needs to go back to their primary-school film classes and pay attention this time. There is a very fine line between creative use of age-old tropes, and simply recycling clichés while expecting your audience to do all of the work for you; Brighton Rock is nowhere near that fine line, I'm sorry to say. Story-telling, characterisation, dialogue, camera-angles, music, lighting – nothing was immune from the pervasive feeling that I'd seen it somewhere before.

Let me recall some of my least favourite pieces of unoriginality. For one, there's a scene where the two central characters are sitting on the pier at closing time. He casually promises her death and disfigurement if she goes to the police - and a different set of lights switches off for the night each time she flinches at a new threat. Seriously? Then there's the glowing spotlights and mock-choral music while that same character prays, not to mention her Madonna-esque headscarf and look of saintly suffering, which is of course directed toward the camera perched atop the crucifix. Oh, and lest I forget there's the overarching plots of “good girl falls for bad boy”, and “youth and enthusiasm fail to win against old age and treachery”. Just for good measure, some other extraneous clichés would be the mobster just looking for a quiet life of running a pub, the unexamined assumptions implicit in the heavily pregnant young widow ending up in a bleak dormitory watched over by nuns, and the deep conversations about guilt, and hell, and how atheists have it wrong because there simply has to be a hell. Roman Catholics discussing guilt and sin? No-one's ever tackled that subject before.

Now, while I'm on the subject of heavily-overused story-lines, the main offender has to be the central theme of mobsters and their power struggles. I freely admit that I find little of interest in the tropes and clichés of this sub-genre even if it's better done than this but even I find myself appalled at the head of the rival mob being called Colleone. It sounds utterly identical to Corleone and really should have been changed. The story was both written and set before The Godfather was ever thought of but it did an excellent job of highlighting the recycled and overused feel of the whole mob theme. Incidentally Colleone was played by Andy Serkis sharpening his teeth on the scenery and apparently having a great time with it; he looked like he was having fun hamming it up and good luck to him given the material he didn't have to work with. There was some genuinely terrible dialogue about “'oo's runnin' dis firm, den?”, and an awful lot of cross and double-cross, and some money extracted with menaces and none of it anything but really quite wearily predictable.

The point of view character is very much an anti-hero, a violent and ruthless sociopath named Pinky, presumably on the principle of “what do you call a 600 pound gorilla? Whatever he likes.” As such, I wasn't surprised to find that he was entirely unlikeable. What bothered me was that it's hard to write an anti-hero well and this film entirely failed in the task to the point of barely trying; indeed it very much appeared at times that the audience was invited and expected to find something of sympathy to him. As far as I was concerned, he was a character with not even the slightest redeeming feature, selfish, cruel, stupid, vicious. And moreover the actor was mostly portraying all of the above through the medium of the sulky glower. I kept wanting to say “cheer up, Emo Thug” because of that ever-present “woe is me” glower. And the utter incompetence of the character also bothered me because it represented lazy writing; the writing team couldn't be bothered to come up with original or interesting mistakes for him to make so instead they went with the old clichés of “doing stupid stuff that could get him caught”, “leaving witnesses”, “misplaced trust in an obviously untrustworthy character” and “trying to rule by fear and dictat instead of earning the trust of men already well-disposed to trust him.” As I say, lazy writing.

Then there was Pinky's love interest and his relationship with her. In short, I had neither sympathy with nor interest with in either Rose or Pinky, and their relationship was every bit as violent, abusive, controlling and downright psychotic as you might expect – and yet, it was not framed in such a way as to show that as the very, very bad thing that actually is. For much of the film Rose is portrayed as oblivious to what's happening around her; glaikit is a word that describes her perfectly. It's a very fine, expressive Scots word; look it up if you don't know it. I understand that she's supposed to be extremely young and naive, and that her father was very controlling, and that as such she wouldn't know a healthy relationship if it failed to slap her in the face. I understand all of that perfectly well but I still don't sympathise with any woman who in an ordinary, non-kink relationship lets a man pinch her to the point of pain, shout at her, threaten her life by holding her out over a cliff edge(!), belittle her, grab her, order her about and more besides. And more importantly, though, I am very unhappy with the way the film tackles (or rather, fails to tackle) this abusive relationship. It's not so much the fact that Rose lets it happen to her, as the fact that the film lets it happen to her.

There is a school of thought that confuses passionate love with possessive violence; the song “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)” always kind of summed up that rubbish for me and Brighton Rock likewise comes very close indeed to romanticising Pinky's treatment of Rose. The film is basically silent on whether we're supposed to support Pinky in his abuse or Rose in her mute acceptance of it, and when it comes to domestic violence silence is very much like acceptance. True neutrality on the subject of domestic violence would be hard to achieve, and a focus on Rose's saint-like suffering coupled with an evident appreciation of Pinky's forceful masculinity is not even slightly neutral.

There's a disturbing side-effect of choosing to portray such a bastard through the medium of unexamined assumptions, cliches and bad acting; effectively, the film is not only saying to the viewer “you know what this kind of person is like” but also “you know what Pinky's like, I know what Pinky's like, I'm OK with that and I'm telling you that you have to be OK with it, too.” For me this showed up in the half-hearted collection of dirty looks, sneers and nasty remarks that show Pinky's utter disdain for Rose, over and above the overt violence listed above. There's a suggestion that it's not just her, it's women and sex in general. That has a wider context and it is unsatisfying to leave that set of concepts lying around without comment, presuming that your audience are OK with it. I was left with the badly sketched image of a man angry and disgusted by sex and taking that out on the woman he's being sexual with – and in being asked to accept that with no more examination I felt as though I was once again being asked to silently accept something ugly. It left a bad taste and I was unspeakably glad that the scene showing their wedding night was content to hint at Pinkie's violence and her passivity.

All of this leads me back to the question of how hard it is to write an anti-hero (we'll leave the equally difficult job of portraying one out of the discussion since I am not of the opinion that the aforementioned sulky glower counts as acting). If your story is centred upon an anti-hero then the story and themes need to be strong; I would argue that there needs to be a reason to be interested in a story and if a sympathy with the main character isn't it then there has to be something else. I would also argue that you need to be unflinching in showing him as an anti-hero, in telling a story. Brighton Rock not only doesn't manage either of these important tasks but also fatally compromises itself by showing some uncertainty about whether Pinkie actually is an anti-hero or just a slightly flawed hero.

And then after all the horror that has gone before there's the ending. Now, it's more than possible that the ending is an artefact of the source material; I have no intention of reading the book to find out. It feels like an example of the old-fashioned conventions that are very black and white about the actions permitted to “good guys” and “bad guys” respectively, where the good guy can't kill the bad guy even in self-defence. I know that the narrative conventions of the 1930s are not the narrative conventions of today - but it I have to admit that it still feels like lazy, clichéd writing to set up a complex situation – and then resolve it by having the bad guy spill acid over himself and then jump off a cliff in agony. But still, it's a useful reminder that if you're ever tempted to try and use acid against someone in a brawl situation, you really shouldn't try and open the bottle when it's poised over your own face.

Almost as an addendum by this point, there were some small good points. I did like the use of locations and the visual feel of both place and time, that having been what I went for in the first place. And apparently all credit for incorporating the battles between mods and rockers goes to the team behind the film; the book was written in the 1930s, as it turns out. There's a scene with a few dozen vintage scooters being driven along the promenade at Brighton which is one of the few genuinely fun bits of the film. Another definite good point was a very fine performance from Helen Mirren; she really does come across as the kind of person you really don't want to cross. It's quite clear that (Don) Colleone wouldn't necessarily get the better of her, never mind the clueless ingenue Emo-Thug.

Oh, and also? There is one genuinely subtle and well done scene. On their first date together Pinky pinches Rose's hand painfully hard, as some variety of honest advert of what she'll get in future, I presume. She tells him that he can keep hurting her if he likes it; it's unnaturally adult for this utterly naive 16 or 17 year old and it's one single flash of insight into what might have gone on in her life to make her think that way. But it stays as one single scene and in the context of the rest of this sadly spiritless and unoriginal tale, that just makes me shake my head and wonder why the rest of the film is so poor. “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day” is one of my favourite proverbs, though... Oh, and since I started this review I saw Andrea Riseborough in Never Let Me Go and did not recognise her at all until I checked IMDB later; that's a high compliment to any actor. I'll look forward to seeing her be less underused at some point.

So to conclude, I sincerely hope that this is the worst film I see this year.
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Missing Opossum

April 2012

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