Film Review by ROBERT HENDERSON
Director, Brian Helgeland
Tom Hardy as Ronald “Ronnie” Kray and Reginald “Reggie” Kray
Emily Browning as Frances Shea
Christopher Eccleston as Leonard “Nipper” Read, the Detective Superintendent responsible for taking down the Krays
Taron Egerton as Edward “Mad Teddy” Smith – a psychopathic gay man rumoured to have had affairs with Ronnie
Paul Bettany as Charlie Richardson
David Thewlis as Leslie Payne, the Krays’ business manager
Chazz Palminteri as Angelo Bruno – the head of the Philadelphia crime family and friend and business associate of Ronnie and Reggie
Kevin McNally as Harold Wilson
This biopic of the East End gangsters of fifty years ago, the twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray, contains a great deal of technological wizardry and an unusual performance by Tom Hardy who plays both twins. The technology is so slick that it allows both Krays to appear on the screen at the same time without any sense that the scenes have been faked, even when the twins have an extended fight.
But technological marvels do not a good film make and Legend has severe weaknesses. Like many biopics it tries to cover too much ground, thinking that by ticking off a large number of incidents that this in itself produces the ideal telling of a life. That may have some merit in a written biography but it is death in a film. The Krays being violent to establish their claim to be hard men; Reggie having a brief spell in prison; the murders of George Cornell and Jack “the Hat” McVitie and a good deal more simply flash by. Little opportunity is given for character development or a proper examination of any part of the biographical subject’s life.
Hardy’s performance as the twins is remarkable as he invents two distinct personas for the Krays; an almost rational albeit violently amoral one for Reggie and a declamatory character with the hint of a lisp for Ronnie, who spends the film in a perpetual state of violence, both suppressed and realised, while hatching crackpot plans for the establishment of a Utopian community in Nigeria or making statements that discompose other characters such as his habit of announcing that he is homosexual. Hardy gives Ronnie a rich behavioural wardrobe of tics and bulging eyes that seem to be perpetually on the point of shooting out of their sockets. This creates a problem however because Hardy’s Ronnie is so off the wall that he comes across not as a real human being, however flawed, but as a monster created for theatrical effect.
Gangster films often have a cartoonish element because of the mixture of the normal with the abnormal. Characters engage in incongruously normal conversations about their wives and children during which they assume a moral position, then engage in some act of horrific violence. But such scenes do not dominate films and are often deliberately funny. The depiction of Ronnie in Legend is neither amusing nor truly threatening. It also detracts from Hardy’s depiction of Reggie – which is convincing enough when taken in isolation – because it is difficult to take seriously either of the characters when one is palpably ridiculous. (Try to imagine Bond or Jason Bourne acting against Norman Wisdom playing a villain in his most popular character guise of Norman Pitkin).
But the main problem is that there is simply too much Ronnie and Reggie. The best gangster films are those with strong ensemble playing. Think of the Godfather series or Friday the Thirteenth. Yet apart from Emily Browning as Reggie’s girlfriend and eventual wife Frances Shea, the most convincing scenes are those between Hardy in his guise as Reggie and Francis Shea and David Thewlis as Leslie Payne the Krays’ business manager. The other characters simply do not have the chance to develop because they have so little screen time. Bewilderingly, the personality who supposedly loomed largest in the Krays’ minds in the real world, their mother Violet (Jane Wood) barely appears, while two actors with substantial film careers – Paul Bettany as Charlie Richardson and Christopher Eccleston as Detective Superintendent Leonard “Nipper” Read – are barely used (Bettany) or given only a series of scenes so short that their effect is minimal (Eccleston).
At the end of the film my thoughts turned to the 1990 film The Krays in which the Kemp brothers from Spandau Ballet played the twins. In some ways this was unintentionally funny because set in an unbelievably clean East End, while Billie Whitelaw in the role of the Krays’ mother produced the worst attempt at an East End accent ever heard from a professional actress – right up there with Dick Van Dyke’s “Gor blimey, Mary Poppins” – while Steven Berkoff went an astronomical distance over the top as George Cornell.
But the saving grace of The Krays was characters other than the twins being developed. Moreover, the portrayal of the difference between the Krays was less contrived. Indeed, considering their lack of acting experience at the time the Kemp brothers were worryingly convincing as the Krays, with Ronnie being a much more believable character than he is in Legend. For all its absurdities, The Krays is both a more convincing evocation of the twins and more entertaining than Legend, which truth to tell becomes tedious as the film progresses because all one-dimensional.
Legend is a not a howling flop merely mediocre. Tom Hardy is a charismatic and accomplished actor, probably the best English film actor of his generation. The subject matter also suits him because he is a convincing hard man with a fine talent for portraying violence. But in the end the film is too unbalanced, too unbelievable to be either a meaningful biopic or a first rate gangster film.
ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s film critic