Directed By: Brian Helgeland
When it comes to making a bio-pic, the writer and director have to overcome the fine line between balancing historical facts with an entertaining script that tells a ‘true story’ in the same vein as fiction…
The East-End London fables about the Kray twins that are still told today over five decades later would truly be listed under ‘myth’s and legends’ in any given Library. Stories have been passed down from generation to generation and as this film states “Everybody has a story to tell about the Kray twins”.
This just goes to show that regardless of how many books you read, police reports you get your hands or witnesses you speak to, the true tale of what went on between Britain’s most iconic ‘club owners’ will never be unveiled. It’s for that reason artistic licence can be fully exercised when it comes to making a movie about Ronnie and Reggie Kray. In 1990, East-End London born Philip Ridley along with director Peter Medak cleverly made a direct decision to make their Kray bio-pic (titled: The Krays) a story about Ronnie and Reggie but told through the eyes of their mother, Violet Kray. I felt that USA born Helgeland’s Legend struggles to tell the Kray twins story from a constant view point. One minute it feels like it’s the story of the twins as a pair and their destructive relationship with each other, then before you know it, it’s Goodfellas-like flick about the gang rivalry in London’s East-End. Hand on though, with the whole film narrated by Frances, the Wife of Reggie Kray – who’s story is this?
As much as it’s hard to distinguish who the protagonists are supposed to be, there’s no doubt in your mind who the stars are. Tom Hardy is fantastic as both Ronnie and Reggie Kray. Reggie at times feels a little modern, you almost expect him to offer a Frances a “cheeky nandos” at one point. Having said that, I feel the modernisation of the character was Hardy’s intention, so a modern audience can relate to the turmoil and tragedy of Reggie and Frances relationship.
As Ronnie, Hardy is at home as an actor within the mind of a paranoid mad-man who’s both tortured and entertained by his own psychotic thoughts. Hardy brings real warmth (yes, warmth) to Ronnie however, delivering the most disturbing and threatening lines with such care that they’re almost amusing – “I’m homosexual, but I’m not a poof” – was a personal favourite of mine.
Emily Browning is also sympathetic as Frances Shea, a character who in the hands of a less-talented actress could have been annoying. I feel the whole story should have been told completely through the eyes of Frances. The character is warm, she’s cute and thus she doesn’t fit in to gangland East-London. The delicate Frances is a fine juxtaposition to the male-dominated cast. I only wish more of the film’s plot was dedicated to the gradual downfall of Mr & Mrs Kray’s relationship from young lovers to a domestic-violent nightmare.
When it comes to the star-studded supporting main-cast you have the likes of David Thewlis as Leslie Payne and Paul Betany as gang-rival leader Charlie Richardson (Note: both starred in Kray-like 60′s flick Gangster No.1 in 2001) Christopher Ecclestone as Officer Leonard Read and Taron Egerton as Edward “Mad Teddy” Smith. These characters along with more minor members of the Kray and Richmond gang remain pretty one-dimensional. Towards the end of the film Ronnie’s entourage of ‘yes-men’ were beginning to remind me of Biff’s cartoon-like gang in the Back to the Future trilogy. The character representation of real life bastard Jack the Hat for example is never really explored, which is strange considering he turns out to be heavily involved in one the pivotal turning point of the real-life Kray story. If we know so little about these characters and writers Brian Helgeland and John Pearson refuse to give them much substance, why bother featuring them in the film so much? Why not tell us more about them, or better still – cut them out completely so that Legend doesn’t run at a way too long 131 minutes.
One of two exceptions to the lacklustre background characters is the above mentioned David Thewlis as the Krays business manager Leslie Payne. I wasn’t aware of Payne, nor his role within the gang but it was interesting to see how such events and deals were orchestrated by a man more cultured, civilised and all round polar-opposite to the violent Ronnie and Reggie. The other exception is Christopher Eccleston as Leonard “Nipper” Read, the officer in charge of the Kray case. The character disappears half way through the film which is a shame as his story and the character’s struggle to arrest the untouchable Kray twins would have made a much more interesting sub-plot along side the Frances and Reggie love story.
Visually it’s a beautiful film, however it’s almost too beautiful at times resembling an American flick. Speaking of which you can tell the American influence in the film, at times it feels more like 1920′s New York than gritty East-London, especially with interior shots.
In comparison to the 1990 movie, the Krays, this is the first and only time I’ll say that I prefer a film with a character played by Martin Kemp over Tom Hardy’s representation. As brilliant as Hardy and others are, Legend falls short on dialogue and has a messy plot that fails to tell a full story in the space of two hours. The 1990′s Kray bio-pic tells the full story of the Kray Twins from their birth, all the way up to their OAPrison years and we’re given a fascinating insight through a fascinating multi-layered character in their mother Violet Kray.
Speaking of Violet Kray, a most-important part of the real Kray story, the character is barely seen or mentioned in the film and is portrayed by an out of depth actress with no authority in what should be a powerful role. In reality, Violet Kray was who the Kray Twins still answered too and worshipped, even at the height of their power and she even influenced the iconic character of Peggy Mitchell in Eastenders. Speaking of family, there wasn’t much of Charles Kray Jnr either, the third Kray brother.
Overall, Legend is worth a watch, even just for the performance of Tom Hardy. The film however had no re-watchable quality about it. If you’re in to historical accuracy you’ll be disappointed and if you’re in to violence, you may be bored by lengthy periods of dialogue. In regards to violence, there wasn’t as much as I thought there would be and that’s no criticism – there’s just the right amount, it’s all in context and is relevant to the story. The ridiculous and almost hilarious fight between Ronnie and Reggie is visually impressive as you’re essentially watching Tom Hardy vs Tom Hardy for 5 minutes and it’s done extremely well.
It’s slightly ridiculous, it’s slightly entertaining and it’s slightly too long! However I’d certainly recommenced a watch of Legend and not just to fans of gangster-flicks. If you’re looking for the UK’s answer to Goodfella’s however, you won’t find it here.