The Latest Krays
It’s not normally a good sign when you go to see a movie with a friend and can’t decide afterwards exactly what sort of film it was supposed to be. I suppose you could have gone to watch one of those films which sets out to subvert the whole idea of genre, but then those are always a dicey proposition. Generally it just means you’ve spent a couple of hours watching a film with a bit of an identity crisis. This is not inappropriate, now I come to think of it, when we are talking about Brian Helgeland’s vaguely-monickered new movie Legend.
Legend concerns the lives of the infamous Kray twins, London gangsters of the 1960s, who were notable for being celebrities as well as criminals. This is by no means the first film to be about them, either directly or obliquely, but it has carved out a bit of distinctiveness for itself by using the miracle of modern technology to enable Tom Hardy to play both twins, a challenge he tackles with considerable gusto (maybe a bit too much gusto, but we’ll come back to that).
The movie opens in the early 60s with the Krays rising figures on the London gangland scene, routinely watched by the police (when they’re not actually in prison). Reggie Kray is presented as the brains of the firm, a smooth, plausible-seeming businessman (though not averse to a spot of the old ultra-violence when necessary), while his brother Ronnie, according to the film, is a slightly thick criminally insane maniac. Fairly early on they dispose of their main rivals, the Richardsons, after a gruesomely violent bar brawl, and from then on the city is theirs.
The film is mostly framed by Reggie’s relationship with Frances Shea (Emily Browning), the woman he eventually marries, but covers all the stuff you’d expect a Kray biopic to handle – gang warfare, the Boothby scandal, their connection with the Mafia, the murders of George Cornell and Jack McVitie, and so on. This is, inevitably, the kind of film which concludes with mugshots of the principals and captions relating what happened to them in later life (at the risk of spoilers: an awful lot of porridge).
Helgeland has assembled an impressive, mostly British cast, including Christopher Eccleston, the ever-watchable Paul Bettany, David Thewlis, Tara Fitzgerald, and so on, but the focus is almost always on Tom Hardy. Now, as Reggie, I would say Hardy gives a customarily good performance. The problem is with his turn as Ronnie – it seems to me that playing both characters perhaps allows Hardy to take each a bit further than he would if he were playing only one of them. Or perhaps a good deal further, because as Ronnie he arguably goes way over the top a lot of the time.
There's rather more Dinsdale Piranha in Hardy's glazed-eyed performance than is probably a good idea: he makes some rather curious choices, to say the least. 'What accent is he doing?' asked the friend of mine I saw Legend with, and I had to confess I had no idea. Is Tom Hardy genuinely playing a real-life convicted murderer for laughs? It's difficult to say, and that itself is a little disconcerting.
Then again, the whole film is arguably softer on the Krays than it should be – probably more than Peter Medak's 1990 biopic was. As the title suggests, this paints the twins as glamorous, almost romantic figures – 'gangster princes... the city was theirs to conquer' gushes the voice-over at one point, while within minutes the film is trotting out that old chestnut that the Krays were lovely boys who only ever hurt their own, and you could leave your front door unlocked in the East End back in the old days... and so on. It's not until close to the end of a long film that you're reminded that terrorising witnesses was part of the Krays' standard procedure, by which point it's a jarring realisation.
Even so, Legend has apparently been criticised by surviving members of the Kray clan for misrepresenting the twins – particularly the depiction of Reggie brutalising Frances Read, although the film doesn't make reference to the allegation that Read was murdered by Ronnie. Whatever you think of the twins, it's very difficult to shake the sense that their story has been stretched and twisted to fit Brian Helgeland's agenda, which appears to be to incorporate some modishly savage gangland violence into an ain't-those-Brits-quaint-style period piece. I'm not sure the intention justifies the changes – as ever, the morality of making an entertainment out of real life killers strikes me as questionable.
And an entertainment this certainly is, rather than anything more thoughtful and objective. On the way out I asked my companion (who is not well acquainted with British culture or recent history) what kind of film she thought Legend was, and she said she thought it was a dark comedy. I couldn't honestly disagree, but it can't really avoid being judged as a based-on-true-events crime drama, either. The technical skill and commitment that has gone into the entirety of the film is undeniable, for it is by no means badly made, but – just as with Tom Hardy's central performances – some of the creative choices that have been made are, to say the least, deeply questionable.