“Power. Fear. Family.”
Director: Brian Helgeland
Cast: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, Taron Egerton
Synopsis: The story of the identical twin gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray, two of the most notorious criminals in British history, and their organised crime empire in the East End of London during the 1960s.
There’s something fascinating about the lives of those who choose to live beyond the rules of society by which most of us are bound. America has Bonnie & Clyde, Capone, Dillinger and more, while we Brits have The Krays, a pair of East End boys who drank a lot of tea and were good to their mum, but who presided over a ruthless and violent criminal empire in the 1960s. In 1990, Peter Medak shackled a good movie which focused on the twins’ relationship with their strong mother, Violet, with a poor casting choice of Gary and Martin Kemp as Ronnie and Reggie. 2016 will see the release of The Fall of the Krays, while the twins featured in no less than three movies in 2015, one of which was Legend, written and directed by Brian Helgeland, the writing talent behind L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, in which Tom Hardy (Child 44, Mad Max: Fury Road) plays both Ronnie and Reggie with the kind of effortless diversity that completely escaped the Kemps.
Legends tells the story of the Krays from the perspective of Reggie’s girlfriend, Frances Shea (Emily Browning), a psychologically frail girl who was played with shrill fragility by Kate Hardie in The Krays, but receives a far calmer interpretation from Browning. This curious decision immediately creates problems for Helgeland which he never convincingly overcomes. A psychologically disturbed character makes for an unreliable narrator, so to keep Frances credible it’s necessary for Helgeland to tone down her condition to such a degree that when consequences eventually arise from it they come as something of a surprise. Add to this the fact that Frances isn’t present to witness the majority of events depicted in the film, and you have to question the reasoning behind Helgeland’s decision. The twins’ older brother, Charlie, would seem to be the most appropriate candidate for narrator, but in Helgeland’s version of events, Charlie doesn’t even exist. And, as if to distance itself as much as possible from Medak’s version, Legend relegates Violet Kray (Jane Wood) to that of an insignificant bystander.
Legend is on firmer ground when focused on the sub-plot concerning the relationship between Frances and Reggie, who, because it is told from Frances perspective, is portrayed as a charismatic rogue who has about him an air of danger which is more exciting than frightening. Although not averse to the use of violence, we only see Reggie dispensing it when forced to by circumstance: Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie (Sam Spruell – The Counselor, Child 44), who will eventually prove to be key to the twins’ downfall receives abrupt punishment for skimming from some of the firm’s illicit revenue, while gangsters working for rival gangster Charlie Richardson (an uncredited Paul Bettany – Priest, Blood) receive a pounding from Reggie and his brother despite being outnumbered two to one. By contrast, Ronnie’s brand of violence is most definitely of the frighteningly unstable variety; privately described by a psychiatrist who’s been coerced into vouching for his sanity as ‘off his f***ing rocker,’ Ronnie’s propensity for violence is never far from the surface. Unfortunately, while Hardy provides a nicely nuanced interpretation of Reggie as a charming rogue whose sociopathic tendencies are as much a result of his criminal career as the cause of it, his portrayal of Ronnie, in a voice reminiscent of a Steve Coogan character, borders on the comical at times.
Given the undeniably humorous tone given to a fist-fight between the brothers, one can’t help wondering whether Ronnie’s semi-comic persona isn’t a deliberate ploy on the part of Helgeland to ensure the audience continues to identify with the twins. In this respect, Legend is reminiscent of the Warners pre-code gangster pictures of the ‘30s in that it invites the audience’s admiration for the exploits of its key figures, and to be fair, it’s a lot more successful in its exploration of the Krays’ exploits amongst London’s criminal underworld than it is with the relationship between Reggie and Frances.
(Reviewed 26th March 2016)