Interview with Brighton Rock director Rowan Joffe

Filmmaker Rowan Joffe has made his mark in more ways than one with his adaptation of Graham Greene’s classic novel Brighton Rock.

Not only did he have to contend with the foreboding shadow of the 1947 Boulting Brothers classic which has been lauded as one of the great British movies, but as the son of award- winning director Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields, The Mission), Rowan has shaken off the weight of familial ties and stepped into the spotlight as a writer/director of considerable talent and defiant spirit.

Brighton Rock tells the story of Pinkie (Sam Riley), a razor blade wielding, sociopath teen gangster, whose lofty ambition to rule the seaside town of Brighton conflicts with his feelings for Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a mousy waitress who naively falls in love with him.

Although a screenwriter of ten years and director of two well received TV movies, Brighton Rock is the feature film directorial debut for Joffe. Yet if he went with his instincts, the film would not have been made at all.

“I was initially approached to own the rights to the novel and to the original film, and was asked whether I would be interested in writing a remake of the 1947 classic, and my initial reaction was ‘No’”, revealed Joffe.

“But it did prompt me to grab the book from my bookcase. I re-read it, and I fell absolutely in love with the character of Rose. I went back to the studio and said ‘Look, why don’t I just adapt the novel rather than try to remake the original movie?’ They were fine with that. (Then) they were taken with the idea that I was able to say ‘You can only have my script, if I’m attached to direct’, and they took a punt on a first time feature director and I was lucky enough to have a go at it.”

Of course, Joffe wasn’t the first to “have a go” with producer John and director Roy Boulting handing in their own version back in the 1940s, which although now considered a classic, saw the heavy handed censorship of that time strip away several violent scenes and water down the religious nature of these characters.

“The novel was worthy of a contemporary adaptation. In fact, it makes it almost more dutiful as a filmmaker if you love the novel, to bring it to life without the restriction of censorship. I mean, a lot of the Catholicism was cut out of the original film because they didn’t want to offend Catholics…. there are aspects of the film where if critics were to be honest about, and few of them have been certainly in England, that the 1947 version is a rather tame adaptation and certainly fails to do justice to the character of Rose, because the original black and white was made is a period where we were culturally and politically very patronising to women.”

Although a much closer adaptation of Greene’s novel, one crucial element that Joffe did change was the setting from pre-WWII England to the 1964 Mods and Rockers era where youth gang violence reached breaking point.

“It felt right because the book is about innocence and corruption, and I couldn’t think of a period in British history that wasn’t more obviously to do with the supposedly corrupting forces of youth violence, sexuality, the crumbling of that Church based morality, the sense that criminality was ripe…all of those things really came into being in the sixties, and they’re all elements that are absolutely central to the book.”

In casting Brighton Rock, Joffe brought together a blend of veteran and burgeoning talent to make a stellar ensemble cast.

“I suppose the criteria in casting in movie is striking a balance between name, big enough actors to satisfy the sales agents, and the integrity of your characters”, said Joffe. “In Brighton Rock there were no conflicts between the two, because our big names are Helen Mirren and John Hurt, and I had always written the characters with those two actors in mind and was incredibly lucky to get those two in the movie.”

“With Pinkie and Rose… obviously, Sam and Andrea are not anywhere near as accomplished as Helen or John, but they’re both up and coming, and I think are both genuinely exciting young actors whose previous work is really involving, interesting and original.”

The 1947 version of Brighton Rock is known as much for Richard Attenborough’s iconic turn as Pinkie. Yet if re-casting that role proved to be a challenge for Joffe, then he didn’t admit it. In fact, it seemed that Joffe was grateful to have the opportunity to have the role portrayed as intended, as a dark, conflicted soul battling with unforseen emotions.

“Pinkie is conflicted, and he’s conflicted for the following reason: his hatred for Rose is a very powerful emotion, but just as black clears the way for white, hatred clears the path for the possibility of love” states Joffe.

“The Pinkie of the book is a character who not only experiences sexual longing for Rose, but also emotional tenderness. It’s there, it’s on the page, it’s in the book… I don’t see that in Attenborough’s performance, and I don’t understand why it has never been criticised for lacking that dimensionality, because without it Pinkie is a reptilian, unfeeling, psychopath incapable of human feeling. And if that is the character, which it isn’t, then you have to ask the very simple question: Why doesn’t he just kill her?”

Joffe also brings an undeniably strong visual style which is felt in every frame of Brighton Rock. Yet there is one scene that stands out the most, a civil weeding between Pinkie and Rose, with the latter bathed in white light and the former drenched in darkness, no doubt a reflection of the moral and spiritual nature of these characters…or maybe not.

“You know what, I would love to say with my hand on heart that it was, but actually it was just an accident of the lighting!” laughs Joffe. “It was only during the cut when it was too late to do anything about it that I decided that it reflected the moral innocence of Rose, and the moral corruption of Pinkie. But I’ve got to be honest and say that it was a fluke!”

Brighton Rock will be released on the 14th of April through Madman.

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About Matthew Pejkovic

Matthew Pejkovic is a freelance film journalist located in Sydney. He writes for various print and online publications including FilmInk, The Brag, and The Retiree. He also runs his own website, www.mattsmoviereviews.net and you can follow him on twitter @mpejko