There has always been a wide appeal to the myth of the Kray brothers, who ruled London’s underworld in the Swinging Sixties. Now they are the subjects of Brian Helgeland’s glossy biopic Legend (2015). Tom Hardy takes on the double role of the infamous twins, in what ultimately is a well polished, but plodding biopic, driven by strong character performances and a well-chosen cast. Helgeland has based his take on the twins on John Pearson’s The Profession Of Violence and thankfully we do not tread the same material Peter Medak’s unfairly derided Nineties gangster flick, The Krays. The film opens at a time when the brothers were securing their position as London’s top mob-lords.
We witness, albeit briefly, the Kray’s rivalry with the South London Richardson ‘torture’ gang, with a brief cameo from Paul Bettany as Charlie Richardson, before entering the film’s main action. Hardy’s performance as the suave and dapper Reggie is reminiscent of his earlier turns, but here has a notable violent temper that when pushed is unleashed with panache. It’s in this role that he is at his most enjoyable to watch, providing a subtle performance, hinting at a rage and passion for violence that is constantly bubbling away underneath the surface of his swanky suit and slick hair. Hardy’s take on Ronnie has many problems, mostly from Helgeland’s approach to the man.
It’s well-documented that Ronnie a plethora of mental illnesses and was openly gay, which in the context was a shocking, and arguably brave thing to do. These two aspects of his character are played for laughs, where his clearly disturbed and violent nature is seen, at least in the way Helgeland has presented him, as a cartoonish hard-man. Watching Hardy’s two performances quickly bring to mind a series of past performances with hints of the swagger of Eames from Inception, and the deranged violence of his performance as Bronson, with touches of Handsome Bob from the best-forgotten RocknRolla (2008). Emily Browning’s Francis Shea, Reggie’s one-time girlfriend and later wife, narrates the film. There is a sense throughout the film that the choice to have a voice-over was an afterthought by Helgeland, and it does a disservice to the film. It’s jarring at best, and at worst clichéd, with the opening of the film setting the scene in the most dull-witted manner possible. There is also an incredibly irksome narrative device that throws the proceedings completely out of kilter. Browning performance is strong, even when she is dwarfed in the presence of the bulking brothers, and there is an enjoyable feisty nature to her performance.
We’re also shown how the Krays were so embedded into London society that they were even embroiled in political scandals (in part due to Reggie’s raunchy parties, where he invited lords and young boys), that led the government to insist on a more thorough police investigation to bring them down. Tackling the head of the investigation is Nipper Reed, played with zeal by Christopher Eccleston. A limp cat-and-mouse story plays out, with loose references to the idea that the Krays and Reed grew in the same circumstances, yet one chose the law, the other two the crime world. Yet, despite its faults, Helgeland has created an enjoyable character driven narrative, held together by Hardy, who whilst troubling as Ronnie, still holds you attention, a proves to be a light-hearted, confused, glossy gangster yarn, with moments of captivating bravado. Perhaps the ultimate problem is that, as the title suggests, the film is too concerned with perpetuating the myth of the Krays rather than wrestling with the minutiae of their notorious carriers. Legend crucially lacks almost any sense of gravitas, although the bold and brash approach does keep you entertained.
Joe Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh