Well, this seems to be a matter of "who do you believe?"
Film Critic @guylodge
There are two good reasons to make what might otherwise seem an inessential new biopic of Ronnie and Reggie Kray — and both of them, as it happens, take the formidable form of Tom Hardy. Playing both the infamously savage Cockney crime lords in a dazzling feat of thespian self-splicing to rival Jeremy Irons in “Dead Ringers,” Hardy’s inspired twin turn elevates and complicates the otherwise straightforward terrain of “Legend,” in which U.S. writer-helmer Brian Helgeland gives London’s East End gangland a slightly touristic candy-coating of Swinging ’60s glamor. While Helgeland’s script lacks the wit and grit of his Oscar-winning job on “L.A. Confidential,” this lengthy, engrossing underworld saga creditably attempts to work a female perspective — that of Reggie’s innocent wife, Frances — into these laddish proceedings. If the Hardy Boys’ film-swallowing contribution ultimately thwarts the effort, that can’t be helped.
Given an enduring local fascination with the Brothers Kray, business should be brisk in Blighty, where the pic opens ahead of its international premiere in Toronto. In the U.S., “Legend” may viably be marketed two ways by the currently indomitable Universal: as a lavishly violent genre outing and as a more prestigious awards vehicle for its duplicated leading man. Interestingly, Hardy’s own performance splits along comparable lines. His Reggie is a suave, charismatically volatile antihero calculated to inspire perverse admiration among younger male auds; his playfully eccentric inhabitation of the gay, mentally unstable Ronnie would, on its own, rep the more extravagant bid for thespian kudos. That both these distinct achievements — the work of a vital movie star and a resourceful character actor, respectively — are contained within a single performance is, of course, its true marvel. The illusion is achieved so fluidly and separably that the practicalities of the stunt are soon forgotten.
As a performance showcase, then, “Legend” is more sensational than Peter Medak’s meaner, muddier 1990 biopic “The Krays,” which nonetheless boasted fine work from New Romantic balladeers Gary and Martin Kemp. It’s less satisfying as psychological profile: For all Hardy’s expressive detail and physical creativity, Helgeland’s chewy, incident-packed script offers little insight into what made either of these contrasting psychopaths tick, or finally explode. Where Medak’s film focused extensively on the twins’ warped relationship with their dangerously doting mother, Violet (so vividly drawn by Billie Whitelaw), she’s a peripheral presence here. Rather, it’s Frances Shea — the working-class ingenue who married Reggie in her teens before succumbing to drugs and depression — who acts as the story’s principal female agent. Played by Emily Browning, Frances is even granted the film’s guiding voiceover, narrating the Krays’ antics in disillusioned tones from the outset until, via a cruel structural fillip, her point of view is harshly stymied.
It’s an unexpected way into the legend, but a compromised one. Despite Browning’s sympathetic efforts, Frances remains something of a cipher in the very story she’s telling, as the film dwells only cursorily on the mental and physical abuse she endured at the hands of her husband. On the more central subject of the Krays’ growing criminal empire, her point of view takes on an unconvincing omniscience; in assuming equal narrative authority on their domestic and professional lives, the device winds up selling both a little short.
While the framing is askew, the picture within is still a compelling one. Helgeland has fashioned the Krays’ rearing of London’s underworld from the gutters of Whitechapel to the sequin-lined heart of Soho as a bloodily romanticized evocation of time and place not dissimilar to “Bugsy’s” from-the-ground-up chronicle of the Las Vegas Strip. Dick Pope’s lensing frequently opts for comic-book extremities in its angles and compositions; production designer Tom Conroy revels in mirrored, brandy-tinted surfaces and heedlessly of-the-moment interior kitsch. Costume designer Caroline Harris, meanwhile, races through impeccably contoured, magazine-ready ensembles as recklessly as their freshly wealthy wearers presumably bought them. (Clothes maketh the men rather brilliantly when it comes to distinguishing the Krays themselves: Reggie’s spiv-slick suits are tailored, finished and carried so differently from Ronnie’s more ungainly gear as to denote a different physique entirely.)
If all this lacquered period veneer gives the film a faint air of dress-up — right down to retro-inclined contemporary pop star Duffy turning up as a sultry lounge singer — that’s at least somewhat appropriate to a downfall narrative in which surface prosperity is all too easily stripped away. (Less excusable is a rather literal-minded soundtrack of ’60s jukebox standards that smothers Carter Burwell’s ripe score.) Even viewers unfamiliar with the Krays’ story will swiftly deduce the genre-dictated direction of things, as the film routinely checks in with doggedly trailing police detective Leonard “Nipper” Read (a grimacing Christopher Ecclestone) between the boys’ increasingly grisly exploits. Similarly, the meet-cute initiation of Reggie’s relationship with Frances hardly makes the subsequent souring of their marriage (between sporadic jail stints) any less surprising: Hers is a cautionary tale structured along similar, albeit grimmer, lines to “An Education.”
Most intriguing amid Helgeland’s tangle of familiar plot strands is Ronnie’s terse expression of his homosexuality — both to calculated professional ends, as the notorious orgies he hosts at his modest Bethnal Green apartment implicate high-flying political abettors, and more vulnerably private ones. His romantic relationship with young lackey Teddy Smith (a poignant, underused Taron Egerton, in very different gun-toting territory from “Kingsman”) is played in tender fashion, though it’s disappointing that the film, seemingly nervous of offending less liberal male auds, presents it in such coy terms. Still, whether taunting fellow heavies with pre-emptive admissions of his sexual preferences, brutishly declaring his own fragility to his bemused brother or making pie-in-the-sky plans to build an urban utopia in Nigeria, the formerly institutionalized Ronnie is the film’s most fascinating, conflicted figure — and the one whose interior life most eludes Frances’ narration.
Adopting a singularly strange, phlegmy vocal delivery, Hardy gleefully plays up his peculiar sense of etiquette, while locating a slim core of perceptive decency in his madness. Projecting a sense of near-feral bewilderment at the world’s demands, he wears his own skin fretfully; playboy Reggie, on the other hand, slides into his like a broken-in pair of loafers. This fundamental conflict in the Krays’ respective states of being is one Hardy wryly articulates even as the film concerns itself with plottier cops-and-robbers activity; if there’s an upside to “Legend’s” baggy structure and distracted focus, it’s that it allows ample room for this remarkable dual characterization to breathe and bellow.
by Leslie Felperin
The Bottom Line
There's a British expression, "all mouth and no trousers," which means someone who talks a great game but can't actually deliver on his boasts. It's an apt way to describe Legend, an account of the infamous identical twins Ron and Reggie Kray (both played by Tom Hardy), Cockney gangsters who ran nightclubs and protection rackets, achieving tabloid notoriety in the 1960s.
Written and directed by Brian Helgeland (his script for L.A. Confidential won an Oscar, and he directed 42 and Payback, among others), this ungainly portrait strikes a lot of poses, as if inviting the viewer to admire its impressive cast list, fine period detailing, "cheeky" British humor and insouciant attitude toward violence. But none of it disguises the fact that the film is also tonally incoherent, vacuous and structurally a bleedin' mess. The Brits' fading but still persistent fascination with the Krays will nevertheless ensure reasonable admissions locally, and Hardy's name will draw interest offshore, but it's not likely to stay in theatrical custody for long.
Aficionados of British crime movies and Spandau Ballet fans will recall that the brothers from Bethnal Green were the subjects of the 1990 film The Krays, directed by Peter Medak and starring pop stars Gary and Martin Kemp as Ron and Reggie, respectively. The Krays may look dated now, with its crash zooms and synth-heavy score, but it zips through a broader swathe of its subjects' lives than this new film in a shorter running time, and it at least delivers one gold-chip performance from Samuel Beckett's muse, Billie Whitelaw, as the Krays' fearsome mother, Violet.
By contrast, Legend — a title so generic it's practically meaningless and one that's confusingly the same as the 1985 Ridley Scott film about a unicorn-loving Tom Cruise — features a fine actor, Hardy, giving one of his worst screen performances. Or at least half a bad performance, considering that it's his hammy, bug-eyed, slurred-voice Ron Kray that's the more egregious offender here, while his easygoing Reggie is reasonably charming (perhaps too charming, for those who value historical accuracy). The two turns operate in such wildly different registers, it's as if two films have been haphazardly spliced together. One is a sentimental tragedy about a man (Reggie) who can't separate himself from his mentally disturbed brother and, because of that, ends up ruining his marriage. The other a flamboyantly violent black farce about a gay psychopath (Ron) who impetuously destroys everything he touches, reminiscent, in a way, of Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson, another film starring Hardy as a real-life nutter, but which was a vastly more interesting work.
Struggling painfully to hold the two mismatched parts together, Helgeland has made Reggie's wife, Frances (Emily Browning), the third point in this quasi-incestuous love triangle. In a move that may have been intended from the start but that plays like an act of postproduction triage brought in to create some kind of coherence, Frances' voiceover narrates the film throughout, even past the point where it makes any logical narrative sense for her to do so. Frances, or at least her voiceover, is given to making writerly pronouncements (example: "It took a lot of love for me to hate him [Reggie] the way I do") that suggest she did a correspondence course in screenwriting somewhere in between the secretarial college and the mental asylum that are mentioned in the script.
It wouldn't be that annoying a device, if it weren't for the fact that onscreen Frances shows none of voiceover Frances' capacity for wryness, insight or even much of the "fragility" she's ascribed by others. Indeed, she barely shows any emotion at all, thanks to the decorative but dull Browning's typically inert, blank performance. The film also frequently deploys the VO to both show and tell plot points, like Frances' growing addiction to pharmaceutical pills, as if it can't trust the audience to work these things out for itself.
Although it eschews the birth and childhood parts of the story covered in Medak's film, Legend trudges through roughly the same criminal career highlights — the key murders of George Cornell (Shane Attwooll) and Jack "The Hat" McVitie (Sam Spruell) especially — but with more emphasis on Frances and Reggie's love affair, the scandal around conservative peer Lord Boothby's relationship with Ron (Boothby is played with delicious fruitiness by John Sessions) and their connections to the North American mafia, personified by Chazz Palminteri's Angelo Bruno, a factotum for Meyer Lansky. The last plot point seems fashioned to add a bit more relevance for U.S. audiences, although it doesn't really pay off dramatically. Nevertheless, contemporary American crime films are very much a touchstone, visible in the ostentatious references to Martin Scorsese (there's even a long Steadicam shot that follows Reggie and Frances into a club, just like the one in Goodfellas) and, perhaps unsurprisingly, L.A. Confidential in the way the film deploys music and fleetingly introduces real historical characters.
Less effective are the jocular bursts of violence, more Guy Ritchie-like than Scorsesian, such as the scene where Ron and Reg take out a pub full of rival gangsters with little more than household objects in hand and the element of surprise. Likewise, the supporting cast has been encouraged to camp things up to the max to add an extra dose of Lock, Stock-style background color, although, admittedly, Taron Egerton's hyenalike Mad Teddy Smith, Reggie's main bed buddy and henchman, is one of the film's brighter sparks.
For many, the big draw will be seeing Hardy playing against himself. (An early poster for the film even lists his name twice above the title.) But even the deployment of this trick is somewhat disappointing and a bit off, the use of effects technology clearly discernable in some shots. The joins are much less visible in, say, the TV show Orphan Black, possibly because a smaller screen is more forgiving. But the bigger problem is Hardy's failure to generate much onscreen chemistry with himself.
The visuals that didn't require technical jiggery-pokery are more persuasive and pleasing, from DP Dick Pope's glittery, rainy-day lighting to Caroline Harris' sharp costumes and, most of all, Tom Conroy's richly detailed production design. That said, there must be something wrong with a film when viewers find themselves spending more time admiring the cocktail glasses and polished-copper wall decorations than the performances.
By Fionnuala Halligan, Chief Film Critic
Dir/scr. Brian Helgeland, UK-US, 2015, 131 mins.
The casting of the ever-intriguing Tom Hardy as violent 1960s London villains Ronnie and Reggie Kray in Brian Helegeland’s biopic Legend was the film’s main selling point through its pre-production process and his gutsy, typically physical performance as the terrorising twins remains its calling card at the end of 131 lengthy minutes of lurid Cockney drama.
Helegeland’s script is far more convincing when it requires Ron or Reg to yell ‘shut up you c***t’ at each other, and Legend certainly delivers on this front
Premiering at Toronto before opening in the UK through StudioCanal and onto the US via Universal on October 2, Legend’s commercial success will rest on the actor, riding high on the success of Mad Max: Fury Road, and he delivers a sufficiently flashy dual-performance to usher this into a good opening week and mid-range VOD success. (Bronson fans will certainly see glimpses of the actor they admire). Critical attention and word of mouth is likely to be nuanced, and the film is over-long at 131 mins, but the 1960s-London milieu and the legend of the Krays is always good for publicity in the UK, even if some commentators may object to the production’s glossily-stylish rendition of two violent criminals.
The Kray Brothers, already eulogised in 1990’s The Krays with similar stunt casting of the Spandau Ballet brothers Martin and Gary Kemp, are renowned for personifying a particularly London mix of sex, violence and politics in the Swinging Sixties. Scandal catalogued the exact same era, to better effect. They were violent gangsters who terrorised the East End; Ronnie was gay and sadistic; he had sex with politicians, compromising the Establishment. Reggie was your more common or garden swaggering, violent bully, and, later, a vicious killer.
From its opening frames, which depict the brothers in the back of a car, it’s easy to buy Hardy’s dual performance, and it doesn’t get in the way of the film – although some actor-ly exuberance in the delivery of Ronnie can sound an off-note, with Hardy using some facial prosthetics around the jaw line which aren’t particularly subtle.
Helgeland, who adapted LA Confidential and wrote and directed 42 and A Knight’s Tale, occasionally demonstrates a tin ear for 1960s London, garlanding Hardy’s thuggish twins in comically lurid dialogue, but a bigger hurdle is the decision to set Legend up as a love triangle of sorts between the twins and Emily Browning as Reggie’s ill-fated wife Frankie. Physically, the slight actress is powered off the screen by Hardy, and her character’s arc isn’t substantial enough to square up to the twins. Initially played as a cheeky hood with sibling issues, Reggie’s violence eventually escalates to match his brother’s in a film which is ultimately all mouth and mayhem.
Legend is framed from the start by a wistful voiceover narrative from Browning’s Frankie, and much of the early part of the film is framed as a romance between her and Reggie. Unfortunately for Frankie, however, crazy, drooling Ronny shows up whenever the going gets good. ‘I’m a giver, not a receiver,’ he informs her on their first meeting. ‘There’s a difference. I’m not a faggot.’ Other cracking lines of dialogue include ‘home at last, like Agamemnon returned from Ithaca!’, ‘London’s bottom had reached her top’, and, as the film draws to an end, ‘the world is like London; it’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is’. Helegeland’s script is far more convincing when it requires Ron or Reg to yell ‘shut up you c***t’ at each other, and Legend certainly delivers on this front.
Helgeland opts to dispense with the Krays’ family background (unlike the 1990 production, which emphasised Billie Whitelaw’s Mother Kray), and Christopher Eccleston is dutiful if under-used as the copper ‘Nipper’ Reed trailing in their wake. A similar fate befalls Tara Fitzgerald as Frankie’s stony-faced mother and Paul Bettany as a rival gangster. David Thewlis, however, gets a good run as the brothers’ consigliere and makes the most of it, with Chazz Palimenteri as Myer Lansky’s delegate and Taron Egerton as Ronny’s occasional boyfriend ‘ Mad Teddy’. The Kray brothers, as most Londoners know, were undone by the murder of Jack The Hat McVitie, and he tantalisingly comes and goes for most of this lengthy film, constantly being beaten to a pulp.
Music and production values help to recreate 1960s London although there are scanty exteriors to feast on. It does feel as if most of the budget, script, and attention went on Tom Hardy’s Kray Brothers, down to the fine and fashionable threads they wear throughout (the production does constantly flirt with the risk of looking like a Vogue Man in the East End shoot). The Krays were a fascination of popular culture in the UK for the way they dominated the East End and swaggered through Soho, flaunting the Establishment; twin brothers, both boxers, one gay, one straight, both violent. With Legend, it seems as if their time may finally be laid to rest.
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