Something has shifted in the making of biopics in the last few years, and while most of them still ascribe to the ‘great men of history’ approach whereby the individual (almost certainly male) creates significant change almost single-handedly, more often film-makers are looking to the women in their lives as a new way ‘in’ to the story. Last year the incredible success of The Theory of Everything did just that, showing us the achievements of Stephen Hawking through the eyes of his first wife Jane, casting fresh light on the personal and family struggles that have been obscured by his scientific achievement and fame.
In Legend writer and director Brian Helgeland gives the Krays the same treatment, examining their motivation using Reggie’s relationship with wife Frances to explain not just the apparent glamour of their empire but also how her suicide signalled its downfall. The central conceit of course is that Tom Hardy plays both Reggie and Ronnie Kray, twins both alike and simultaneously demarcated by their different personalities and approaches. It’s an interesting film but perhaps not the one many people would expect to see on hearing the name Kray; the violence is there but without the Tarantino-esque brutality it’s not particularly graphic, instead you get lots and lots of style as Helgeland portrays the clubs, the music and the mixture of people from all classes – it’s like Mad Men with guns.
The humanity of it is perhaps the most interesting aspect. Last week’s preview screening at the BFI was followed by a Q&A with the director who explained his research process, discussions with some of the people who knew them from gang members to their mother’s hairdresser by way of Barbara Windsor (who gets a name check in the film). Often with characters that loom so large on the historic and cultural landscape the stories about them become the truth making it far harder to wade through the myths and nonsense to get a sense of who they were. Belying the title then, Helgeland attempts to do this and he’s partially successful in delivering some insight into the community around them and into Reggie in particular.
Tom Hardy’s performance is a mixed one and I have to agree with most of the reviewers, enjoying his very nuanced and appealing Reggie but disconcerted by the almost entirely comic depiction of the less featured Ron that somehow felt as though it sat outside the rest of the film. As Helgeland revealed during the Q&A, Hardy had to play both roles on the same day and constantly switching between the two is a considerable achievement, so understandably one characterisation feels much cruder. And, in playing both roles, Hardy has no counterpoint to act with, having to decide in advance and teach a stunt double the relevant ‘Ron’ mannerisms even before he’d filmed that side of the conversation, giving him much less freedom to ‘play’ with the character in the scene. And sadly that does come across – it is very funny at times but a cartoonish gangster character that feels rather stilted.
Reggie by contrast is Hardy at his best, filling the character with contradictions and charisma. He starts off quite tenderly pursuing Frances, against the wishes of her mother, and wowing her with the glamour of his lifestyle. There is an edge of danger but one which he seems to be in control of, meting out punishments only when necessary and keeping elements of his club business ‘legit’ to avoid investigation. As the film progresses Hardy is very good at showing the conflict of having to protect his increasingly unstable brother from his own delusions while keeping the businesses ticking over. Later in the film too there’s a chance to question how alike they really are as Reggie’s violence explodes in one of the film’s climactic moments.
The film is two thirds narrated by Frances, played by Emily Browning, so you get both her perspective from within the story and from the outside summing it up. Yet she’s a character that never properly unfolds which Helgeland excused by saying he didn’t want to invent things about her that he couldn’t find out from the research – and it seems there was little proper recollection of her among the people he spoke to. Browning makes Frances sweet and fragile but the lack of character on the page never really explains why her marriage declines and within moments Frances has gone from blissfully happy wife to deep depression and heavy dependency on pills. Her existence in the film and the angle onto the Krays that she provides is an interesting one though, and again Helgeland made the point that after her death, all the things Reggie used to do to protect the community (bribes, checking in on police visits etc) just stopped and that’s when the empire fell apart. That change comes across well in the film and we see Frances’s suicide as a pivotal moment in Reggie’s own decline – just a shame that the only major female character feels so fleeting.
In true Helgeland-style the police are also portrayed as a mixed bag of decent crusaders looking for justice like Detective Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read played here by an under-used Christopher Ecclestone, very much in LA Confidential’s Ed Exley mode, and the pockets of corruption where we hear of policeman taking bribes and see a thuggish guard mercilessly beat Reggie on his first day in prison (again like Stensland from LA Confidential). This again isn’t explored in much depth but does give a hint at why and how the Krays were able to survive for so long. Although the violence is somewhat muted, it does still punctuate the film, used as milestones on their road to destruction. First the character of Jack McVitie is seen repeatedly stepping out of line for which he receives punishment from Reggie and only later do we realise the common thread binding those two together. We are also given increasing tension between the brothers induced by Frances’s push for Reggie to ‘go straight’, which finally erupts in a punch-up between them at the Esmeralda Club, signalling the beginning of the end. And finally there is a beautifully shot scene after Reggie’s climatic outburst as he walks through the darkened streets of the East End, emerging into the lamplight from under a shadowy railway arch, covered in blood – a public declaration that he’s gone too far.
It’s no coincidence that I began this review with a comparison to The Theory of Everything because it actually has a lot in common with Legend (besides the shared producers). Both use a marital relationship as a way to see well known men in a new light and to unpick the surrounding layers of fame and folklore, but more than that, the style of both films, their sparkly look and feel are similar. Maybe the violence is held back, maybe the story is too sanitised and maybe it glorifies their regime too much, but you do get a sense of the rest of that world and why so many people, from working class gang members to peers, Ministers and celebrities of the day were drawn to their flame. Legend may not be the film you expect but it reinforces our continued fascination with one of Britain’s most famous criminal families, the Krays.
Legend is on general release from Wednesday 9 September in the UK and 2 October in the US. This preview screening took place at the BFI Southbank so visit their website for similar events.