Melbourne, January 31, 2010 (Peter Malone) - The new film version of Graham Greene's 1939 novel, Brighton Rock, brings some Catholic themes into prominence. A BBC/UK Film Council production, it is directed by Rowan Joffe, who wrote the screenplay for The American, a Greene-like drama about a burnt-out hitman. His father, Roland Joffe, directed The Mission and City of God as well as the forthcoming film about St Jose Maria Escriva, There be Dragons, all films with Catholic themes.
Greene himself wrote the screenplay for the Boulting Brothers' 1947 version of Brighton Rock , imbuing it with his frequent themes of sin and the possibilities and impossibilities of redemption His central character, Pinkie (played with force by Richard Attenborough and now by a sullen Sam Riley) is one of the nastiest of Greene's villains, young, brash and ambitious, the opposite of that other Greene arch-villain (all smiles and sinister calculation), Harry Lime, from The Third Man. The other central character is the naive young waitress, Rose, who becomes the target of Pinkie's scheming so that she will not turn a police witness against him for the murders he committed.
The setting of the present film is 1964 rather than Greene's original 1930s. It is the period of thugs and gangs, of Mods and Rockers and riots, the time just before the abolition of capital punishment in Britain. The film recreates the period and offers the visuals of Brighton, the dark swirling water, the Pier, the Pavilion, the blocks of waterfront flats, streets, tea rooms and bars, as well as dilapidated houses and estates.
It is not usual to have Catholic characters and themes in British films. However, they are a staple of adaptations of Graham Greene novels. There is no shirking of them here. But, what they do show is how little touched by the depth of faith so many Catholics are. Pinkie says he is ‘Roman' but doesn't practise, though he says that atheists have got it all wrong denying God and, especially, the existence of Hell. But, there is a moment when he is being chased along the beach, when he drops to his knees and starts reciting the Hail Mary. Rose is devout in a junior primary school kind of way. She is pious, prays the Rosary, goes to Church, lights candles, kneels before the Crucifix.
These depictions could serve as an indictment of the frequent lack of adult follow-up in faith development for so many Catholics - which Greene wrote about in the 1930s, in his screenplay in the 1940s and which is again presented here.
However, under the surface of what Pinkie says and believes, are the themes of Greene's more serious works like The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair. Anyone wanting to follow up on film versions could well look at the 1952 version of The Heart of the Matter where these issues are spelt out with grim finality and the 1999 version of The End of the Affair , adapted by Neil Jordan.
The convert Greene always struggled with the teachings of the Church, not only the moral issues, but the theology of sin, grace, forgiveness and redemption. He believed that literature had, of necessity, to be about sin.
Greene imagined characters who were torn between love of God and love of another human being, highlighting the contrast, especially when the love of another human being seemed more important and tangible than love of God. This is the case with Rose in Brighton Rock . She is so flattered and affirmed by Pinkie's attention to and treatment of her (though she cannot recognise this in Ida who tries to befriend and save her) that she is willing to commit a mortal sin by marrying him in a registry office (though he assures her it is not a real marriage because there is no priest). Ultimately, she is persuaded that she should take her life for love of him, to protect him and to be with him forever. She affirms this to the nun at the end of the film where she is seen as pregnant and still living with glowing memories of Pinkie, unaware of his cruelty, and the record that she insisted he make on the pier where, in reality, he declared his hatred of her, despising her.
Can Rose be saved because of her love for Pinkie? She is asked by another girl whether she believes in ‘all this stuff', including miracles. She sees the record player, the camera tracks towards the crucifix, she plays the record (while we know what is really on it) and, as a visual aural alternative to the cruelty of the novel's ending, Greene devised the ending where the record sticks on ‘I love you' and repeats it over and over again. Rose is delighted. God has worked a miracle.
Pinkie's theology is deeper but pessimistic and grace-less, more like that of Scobie in The Heart of the Matter and Sarah in The End of the Affair. Both are prepared to lay down their lives, and their immortal lives, including belief that they would go to Hell, for the sake of their human loves. Scobie commits sacrilege with communion so as not to hurt wife or lover. Sarah risks beginning her affair all over again after sacrificing her love so that her lover could survive a bombing raid. Pinkie has a speech where he declares his grim belief in the harshness and suffering of Hell. He cannot express any real belief in Heaven. And that is how he lives his life, cheerless and cold, pressurising Rose to kill herself - and then he dies.
The person of grace in the film is the blowsy Ida (Hermione Baddely memorable in 1947, Helen Mirren in the current version). She is not a person of faith in any way, except in some goodness in human nature, in her trying to protect Rose, and in a sense of justice that evil should be punished. She is no saint, even at the end, but she does good. It is something the same with Pinkie's henchman, Dallow, whom Ida relies on at the final confrontation with Pinkie.
Brighton Rock is not so much of a theological treatise as The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair can be. But, it does raise the ‘De Profundis' (Out of the Depths I Cry) nature of deep storytelling about the human condition. On the other hand, it is also an example of a more nihilistic approach to sin, death and life after death, an ‘Enter the void' film.
This version of Brighton Rock brings an old way and style of Catholicism centre screen. Audiences might wonder and question. It is not the core Catholicism of believers whose focus is not just on the Passion and death of Jesus but on the Resurrection (a criticism made of Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ ).
A friend once wrote that Graham Greene tasted life through rotten teeth. Greene also probed theological questions with this bitter taste in his mouth.