United Kingdom | 9 September 2015 | Directed by Brian Helgeland | Starring: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Taron Egerton, Paul Bettany, Colin Morgan, Christopher Eccleston, Chazz Palminteri
With the releases of Child 44 and Mad Max: Fury Road earlier this year, it seems Tom Hardy’s face has been perpetually displayed on every billboard, double-decker bus and of course every cinema screen across the UK in 2015 (he even had time to feature as a singing taxi driver in London Road). If you haven’t seen enough of him already, you’ll be able to watch Hardy double-time in the new gangster flick Legend, in which he stars as the notorious Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the iconic kingpins of organised crime in 1960s London.
In Child 44, we had to watch Hardy speak with a dubious Russian accent and in Mad Max, he scooped up a rather comfy action role in which he barely speaks at all. So when I heard he had signed up to play not one but two of the world’s most renowned criminals, I instantly knew we would be seeing Hardy pushed to his limits and delivering a career-defining performance(s). Anyone who enjoyed the brooding, erratic tough guys that made him famous (think Lawless, Warrior or Martina Cole’s The Take) will know that Hardy was made to play the Krays; and his portrayal of the psychotic Ronnie is specifically reminiscent of his spectacular performance in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson as “Britain’s most violent prisoner”.
This all came to be when Brian Helgeland, the Oscar-winning writer of L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, who had planned for two separate actors to play the Krays, called up Hardy to take on Reggie. Yet when the two met to discuss the role, Hardy was more excited about the prospect of portraying the more troubled Ronnie. The actor made Helgeland an offer he couldn’t refuse: “If you give me Ronnie, I’ll give you Reggie.” Thus, the double act was formed, and although it isn’t the first time we’ve seen this happen (recently Armie Hammer in The Social Network, Sam Rockwell in Moon, Jesse Eisenberg in The Double and Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy) this is the first time that I’ve seen it used in this way and work so effectively.
Whereas Eisenberg, Gyllenhaal and Rockwell were playing either doppelgängers or clones, Hardy is playing two completely unique and conflicting characters – Reggie, the smooth-talking, cheeky chappie who swaggers around town taking care of business and picking up girls; and Ronnie, an unhinged, gurning hulk whose single-minded pursuit for power and passion for violence is detrimental to his brother’s calculated control of the city. It is brilliant to see an actor have so much chemistry with himself, and although the process must have required Hardy acting to thin air and some tedious editing, the interaction between the twins is seamless. In fact, as the film progresses Ronnie and Reggie become their own separate entities and you completely forget they are being played by the same person.
Telling the Kray story was always going to be a tricky subject for Brian Helgeland to tackle, as although the Krays are often thought of as celebrity figures who led glamorous lives and presented themselves with a likeable charm, at the end of the day they were first rate criminals. Underneath the club-casino owner facade, the Twins were running an international drug trafficking network and secret orgies and paedophile rings which attracted a host of well-known celebrities and politicians as well as being involved in several protection rackets, armed robberies, extortion and arson attacks. This empire was upheld by the brothers’ gang ‘The Firm’, who enforced their influence through intimidation, torture and murder.
Therefore, Helgeland was constantly towing the line between presenting the Krays as heroes or villains, a concept we are more than accustomed to on today’s screens with the likes of Scarface, American Psycho and The Wolf of Wall Street. All these movies have despicable lead characters who perform unspeakable crimes, yet just like the Legend duo, although we consciously condemn their behaviour, the film glorifies them in such a way that we cannot help but support their motives, admire their charismatic personalities and be thoroughly entertained by their presence on screen.
Although Hardy’s performances are highly captivating and an utter joy to watch, I don’t think there’s an Oscar in sight only because at times his depiction of Ronnie seems like a caricature and consequently makes Reggie seem too straight and narrow. The film starts with Ron getting bailed out of a mental hospital, which initially makes it hard to take him seriously, but even more so when it appears that every line the writers have given him is a gag. There is no doubt that this is a funny movie, which I don’t think anyone was expecting.
As the film progresses, the dark, emotional themes start to settle in, but the first half is dominated by comedy, bordering on farce. The moment when the brothers are preparing for a bust-up in a bar and Ronnie is lamenting the fact that the rival gang haven’t brought any guns to make it a “proper Western shoot-out”, seems like scenario stolen from a Guy Ritchie film. For the most part the comedy seems to work as it gives the gritty depiction of gangster life a light-hearted, amusing edge. Yet crucially it takes the place of realism, and leaves you wondering how things really went down and if Ronnie was really this loopy?
Though despite being the clown of the film, Ronnie is also the monster and you can’t help but clench those butt-cheeks every time he appears on screen. As Hardy channels his inner Bronson, Ronnie’s unpredictable, violent nature creates an aura of perpetual tension that certainly rivals the terrifying performances of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver.
Although being classically British subject matter, there is a cartoonish, American feel to Legend, and this is precisely what Helgeland has brought to the film, a director who was heavily influenced by his childhood favourites Casino, Mean Streets and Goodfellas. All these films focus on the flashy, glamorous side of American crime and Helgeland intentionally created Legend with this aesthetic to capture the vibrant, luxurious feel of London in the swinging sixties and give his glitzy gangsters a suitable playground to run riot in. The end product is a setting that looks more like Las Vegas than the rundown East end we’re used to seeing in films like Hyena, The Long Good Friday and Harry Brown; but essentially it makes the film gorgeous to look at and is completely appropriate to the overall tone.
The glittering set and extravagant performances make for a highly artificial version of the real events, yet it is clear that Helgeland wasn’t setting out to make your run-of-the-mill, matter-of-fact biopic. Everything is here to entertain the audience and transport them to a ghastly yet tantalising world that they would otherwise never explore, where rules and ethics are constantly broken in the name of violence and debauchery.
Though Legend is certainly not all fun and games as the true story at the heart of this film is actually rather bleak and tragic. The action is shown to us through the eyes of Frances Shea, the doomed wife of Reggie Kray, who begins the film as a bubbly, fresh-faced young girl who is naively hypnotised by Reggie’s charms and then as she falls deeper into the pits of the Kray’s crime kingdom becomes progressively worn down by the day-to-day horrors of Reggie’s real life. There is little known about the real Frances Shea, yet Helgeland’s decision to base the story from her perspective was a perfect one, allowing us to distance ourselves from the Kray brothers and make our own judgements. Besides, who in the audience would be able to survive an entire film in Ronnie’s mind?
Discounting her cringeworthy retrospective voiceover – which in an attempt to provide exposition and some philosophical insight, nearly ruins the film – Emily Browning gives a superb performance as Reggie’s helpless other other-half. Her innocence and purity provides the audience with something to align with and relate to; a isolated moral centre in a world full of murdering maniacs and the film’s only entirely sympathetic character. We begin by encouraging Reggie’s and her cute, blossoming romance, but soon enough, we are begging her to escape at all costs.
Like Frances, the audience is fooled by the alluring Reggie and put off by the unstable Ron, but as certain events unfold, the tables are completely turned when Ron begins to show a bit of empathy and Reggie starts to adopt more psychopathic traits. The main conflict of Legend develops from the juxtaposition of the composed businessman Reggie and his completely inept fame-hungry brother, who juggle the power of London’s underworld between them. As soon as Reggie has to spend some time in the can, Ron runs The Firm straight into the ground. Yet despite their shambolic partnership, what Frances and the audience begin to understand is that no matter what happens, the Krays’ brotherly bond will never be broken and fatally Reggie can never get rid of the thorn in his side.
If Legend is criticised for aggrandising the image of the Krays, then the film’s final act will definitely put them in their place. If anything remains wholly real in the film, its that there are consequences for your actions. In too many American gangster flicks you see dozens of men gunned down without even a whiff of the cops showing up. In low-key London, were gun culture is comparatively non-existent, it only takes one murder to bring a mobster crashing down (That’s not to say there isn’t a ton of brutal violence in this film) For all the engaging bravado and hilarious gags, we begin to see what the twins really are bit by bit, nevertheless, it is still difficult to not be on the Krays’ side even in the final moments of their free lives.
So if you want a heavy investigation and evaluation of who the Krays were – this won’t be it – then again, I don’t think that kind of film would be half as entertaining as Legend is. Helgeland wasn’t trying to recreate the true story of the twins, mainly because there isn’t one. Every one in London has something to say about the Krays and both brothers’ present day identities have been formed from network of twisted tales, rumours and gossip. They have become an integral, albeit rather scandalous, part of the city’s folklore and they will remain mythical figures because that is how people enjoy interpreting them. The fatal flaw of the Krays was that they wanted to be the most powerful and famous men in London in a profession that demands secrecy, though ironically, this highly absurd yet entertaining film, further engraves their names into the history books and, as the title suggests, gives the legends the limelight they always craved.