Saturday, 23 January 2016

"Me and my brother, we're gonna rule London!"

Like it or not – and it is certainly nothing to be celebrate – Ronnie and Reggie Kray were as much 1960s British icons as The Beatles, Michael Caine or Twiggy. The identical twin crime lords may have been violent thugs and, eventually, convicted murderers, but during their rise they rubbed shoulders with the rich, famous and powerful, and encouraged a 'they look after their own' street mythology that endures to this day. Like Al Capone a generation before and an ocean away, they accrued a glamour that obscured their atrocities, and for some people it still does. They are, as writer and director Brian Helgeland would evidently agree, prickly subjects. Get too judgemental and moral, and you deny them their charm, which was as important to their rise as their brutality. Become too enamoured, and you have made heroes of monsters.

Based on John Pearson's 1972 crime biography The Profession Of Violence: The Rise And Fall Of The Kray Twins, Legend tracks the twins from backstreet scallywags punching above their weight at the local boxing club, to rulers of gangland London with police and politicians in their pockets. Always immaculately booted and suited, the Kray twins, owners of first a billiard hall and then a West End nightclub, mingle with the rich and famous before becoming celebrities in their own right. In the shadows behind the spotlight, however, they cement their status by heading up The Firm, a fearsome gang that deals in robbery, murder, arson, torture and protection rackets.

In The Krays (1990), director Peter Medak strove to explain, rather than excuse, the twins via a full on biopic which laid the blame at a perhaps too easy target – their mother. Helgeland takes a more interesting approach. He makes Reggie's delicate, doomed girlfriend then wife Frances (Emily Browning) our guide to the Krays' world. She loves Reggie fiercely, so at first he is portrayed as a twinkle eyed, cheeky, drainpipe climbing scoundrel. She is wary of Ronnie, a hulking bottled storm with genuine psychological problems, but still with his own quirky charisma, wrapped up in the fact that he is an open homosexual. Frances is swept up in all the glitz of their thrall over the East End. Then, inevitably, the filthy, gruesome true nature of her husband and brother-in-law is gradually exposed. Through her eyes they are both heroes and monsters.

Browning is excellent, simultaneously brittle and warm, though her deliberately quaint voice-over occasionally grates. But like 1960s London itself, the film is overshadowed by the award baiting performance of Tom Hardy (Lawless) as both Ronnie and Reggie. And don't think the twins just appear at separate times or occupy different halves of the same screen. With the help of digital trickery, this is a physically integrated, symbiotic relationship.

Into Reggie, he throws all his charm, making him a young Marlon Brando with a wide boy swagger. His Ronnie, meanwhile, is a hot stew of nasal croaks, eye contact avoidance and stiff, awkward body language. One is more hero, one is more monster, but Hardy makes sure the lines blur. It is a rare thing to observe – an actor creating chemistry with himself.

At times Hardy pushes it close to comic caricature – the violence is almost played for laughs in earlier scenes, especially in a virtuoso Ronnie versus Reggie hardcore brawl – but he balances on the brink as he did with such spectacular success in Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson (2008). Which all perfectly fits Helgeland's brief – he is portraying the Krays through the prism of Frances, to whom they are larger than life. The clue is clearly in the title.

Helgeland's savvy new take on this well known story proves that crime can pay, while Hardy is astonishing and magnetic in two truly towering performances.

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