Tom Hardy’s brilliant dual role as infamous London gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray elevates Brian Helgeland’s British gangster into something that plays with the brothers’ legacy rather than panders to it.
The aptly titled Legend is a fittingly backhanded tribute to the legacy of London’s infamous gangsters. Their story is as much hearsay as it is truth, much of which driven by the Kray twins’ own pursuit of notoriety. On the outside looking in we see a pair of fearless London brothers who ran their patch of London’s East End through intimidation and fear, promoting themselves up the ranks by simply being meaner than the next guy. Internally, perhaps, there’s a different story to be told, one bred on a perceived ideal, romanticising the criminal spotlight with an almost cartoon-like villainy.
If anything, one of the delights of Brian Helgeland’s film, which follows the brothers’ exploits in the 1960s up until their incarceration in 1968 for separate murders, understands the twins’ brand of celebrity. The director, who’s best known as the screenwriter of the brilliant L.A. Confidential and other thrillers such as Man on Fire and Mystic River, lines Legend with a thin veil of self-aware humour. It means that the Krays’ outbursts of violence have a caricatured sensibility that satisfyingly distracts from the true horror of their misdemeanours. Instead of glamorising their criminal activity, something they’d almost certainly choose to do themselves, Helgeland fine tune’s it into parody, at times making them no different to Scooby Doo’s various nemeses, the only thing missing being the unveiling of the mask.
It takes something away from the fear-factor of the Kray twins, something that propagated their successful criminality. But it also fittingly reduces their infamy to that of schoolyard bullies, rightly ridiculed for the unpleasant activities that brought terror to those who willingly and unwillingly crossed their paths. To wallow in the darker side of the Krays’ life would be to pander to their ego, something Helgeland neatly avoids. Instead, we perhaps get a legend within a legend, a Chinese whisper of truths and untruths.
It means the brothers remain enigmatic but the film does choose to paint some definitive lines: Reggie (Tom Hardy) is the smart one, the brains behind the brawn; Ronnie (also Tom Hardy) is the loose cannon, a paranoid schizophrenic and brutal brawler. Together they make a formidable team, one that begins to control large areas of the East End through extortion and violence. Reggie tries to settle down, promising to stay out of prison when asking for Frances’ (Emily Browning) hand in marriage but unable to protect her fragile mental state from the bleaker side of his affairs. Ronnie struggles to maintain his urges, his poor management damaging the brothers’ reputation, culminating in one of the film’s defining moments: a farcical scuffle between the pair in front of their gang.
Less a rise and fall tale, the film prefers to tell a middle chapter in the Kray twins’ history which, most importantly, gives its star performer the chance to really shine. Hardy disappears into the dual role, seamlessly displaying both Reggie and Ronnie with an astonishing ability to make you forget you’re looking at the same actor. There’s some subtle prosthetic work and the spectacles of Ronnie to help differentiate the two but it’s all down to Hardy’s nuanced quirks: the eagle-eyed stare, sure-footed calm and clean-cut lines of Reggie; the jittery, firecracker nature and unpredictability of Ronnie, often exhibited by raised eyebrow.
And it is Hardy who elevates Legend beyond gangster titillation. He’s turned in some startling performances in recent years and this would rank amongst the best of them. The nightclub fight sequence between the brothers – which is essentially Hardy-on-Hardy – is worthy of the price of admission alone (if only for the absurdity of it all) but it’s the dialogue sequences between the characters that truly astonish. The dramatic electricity Hardy discovers in his performances is a genuine example of a master of the art form.
Without such brilliance from the actor, Legend could go missing like many of the men who tried to disrupt the Krays’ business dealings in the 1960s. Helgeland’s conventional structural choices belie the magnetism of his leading “men”, leaving too many stones unturned (Frances’ downward spiral, cop Leonard “Nipper” Read’s dedication to bringing them to justice, and chief rival Charlie Richardson, get somewhat papered over). The Krays, in this incarnation, are a component of their own myth, caricatures to be manipulated just as they had played on their own tabloid fame.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Brian Helgeland
Written by: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston
Released: 2015 / Genre: Gangster / Country: UK / IMDB
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Legend is released digitally on 18th January and on DVD, Blu-ray, Limited Edition Blu-ray Steelbook & VOD on 25th January.