Featuring:: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, Taron Egerton, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Paul Anderson
Director: Brian Helgeland
Writers: Brian Helgeland, adapted from John Pearson’s book “The Profession of Violence”
Australian release date: Thu 15 Oct
Verdict: Gripping and worth seeing for Tom Hardy’s powerhouse dual-role performance, but ultimately less than it might have been.
Disclaimer: I’m a fan of gangster movies; I don’t recall seeing one that was less than absorbing. Crime ‘families’ put a magnifying mirror to the paradoxes, psychological profiles and tyrannical machinations of all manner of terrorist organisations, from religious cults and organisations of political zealots right down to yer dysfunctional family at large and lurking behind respectable facades in the suburbs. That’s inevitably fascinating.
The story of the rise and fall of the Krays should be right up there. These twin brothers from London’s East End, Reggie and Ronnie, the latter a violent paranoid schizophrenic, “ruled” London during the swinging sixties with their gang The Firm, mixing with rock stars and celebs like Sinatra and Judy Garland at the groovy West End nightclubs they ran. Legend has painted them as almost endearing anti-heroes of the working class, whose reign ended with life sentences in a psychiatric institution and jail. There are rich dramatic pickings indeed in this material.
And yet, while Legend is gripping, captures the era well without resorting to 60s cliches, and features a truly phenomenal dual lead performance from Tom Hardy, who plays both brothers, it falls short of the great gangster flick it could have been, largely because of some scripting missteps (I’m not referring to the dialogue, which is well handled, and includes some terrific lines).
The lads might have been a genetic and criminal double act, but their personalities differed markedly in some ways, and Hardy does a superb job in playing them as separate integrated characters. He is assisted by some genius make-up feats that subtly alter their facial characteristics, and wondrous use of technology. In one scene, Reggie and Ronnie go at each other hammer and tongs in a dirty and bloodily realistic bar room fight. How does an actor brawl with himself so convincingly and how can the illusion that he is two characters be so seamlessly pulled off? Pondering on such questions during the viewing, as many will, is a little distracting at times.
That’s harsh, marking the film down on the basis of the brilliantly and appropriately applied technical wizardry, and by extension flip-siding its greatest asset – Hardy’s dual-role acting feat – as a liability in its potential to distract. However, the call has to be made because any element that distances the viewer from the two lead characters undercuts the raison d’être of the film.
But there is another more obvious problem of similar ilk: the main relationship focus is Reggie and the love of his life, Frances (Emily Browning), rather than Reggie and Ronnie.
Frances, who also narrates in voiceover, is the naïve but headstrong teenage sister of one of Reggie’s minor offsiders. She is charmed by Reggie, who is at the top of his crime career and cuts an impressive figure. He indulges her extravagantly and puts her on a pedestal, and to her mother’s dismay she marries him after a whirlwind courtship. Her ridiculous fantasy is to persuade him to go straight and live in suburban domestic bliss with her. Reggie leads her on for a time, but it soon becomes evident that nothing will change, and that she comes a long way second to his “business” interests. It’s all downhill for poor Frances from that point.
There is not much to her as a character, and in any case, Reggie is not the stuff of love stories. Far more interesting is the volatile and weird relationship between him and Ronnie, which is under-explored due to the attention devoted to Reggie and Frances. Thankfully, Ronnie’s character is an incandescent (if cartoonish) figure of horror fascination. A violent, sadistic nutter and brazenly, confrontingly homosexual in defiance of the mores of the time, he is some compensation for the time wasted on Reggie and Frances. One of the highlights of the movie is his bar room murder of a rival gang leader, a notorious landmark in the Krays’ rise to power which apparently elevated them and their gang to undisputed kingpins in London’s gangster world.
In truth, Reggie is just as ruthless as Ronnie, but more controlled and calculating. His infamous “cigarette punch” for example, is so-named after his tactic of offering a fag to his victim, then delivering a blow to the jaw when slack and most prone to breaking. Nasty. But overall, as a character he does not have as much to offer as Ronnie, and could have done with some psychological fleshing out.
There is an attempt to humanise him towards the end and add some pathos by portraying his love for Frances as enduring beyond all, but it doesn’t ring true. Neither does his moment of tragic insight after committing a frenzied stabbing murder of an underworld associate before a roomful of startled witnesses, thereby guaranteeing a life sentence for murder: Ronnie asks him why he did it, to which he answers “because I can’t kill you.” If only more work had been put into the brothers’ characters and their relationship we might have understood and cared more about them, and this might have been a profound and poignant revelation, rather than a line that is starkly impressive but ultimately fails to convince.
Legend is worth catching for Hardy’s performance alone, and it certainly has its moments, but it could have been so much more.
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