(SPOILERS) There might be a superior Krays movie to be made by distilling the best elements of The Krays and Legend into one new picture, but it would still be lacking when it comes to what made them infamous; their criminal enterprise itself. Peter Medak’s film of Philip Ridley’s screenplay has no time for the glossy vision of ‘60s London Brian Helgeland pursues, and makes great capital from emphasising the twins’ relationship with their mother (Billie Whitelaw). It also has more of a sense of “what led to this”, rudimentary as it is, rather than introducing us to the brothers fully formed. What it doesn’t have, however, is Tom Hardy.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t good things resulting from the casting of Martin (Reggie) and Gary (Ronnie) Kemp. No matter how good Hardy is (and he’s very good), there’s always a sense that his playing both brothers is a gimmick, one that further undermines the reality of Helgeland’s already superficial and swanky East End. You can get away with that sort of thing in your classic twin movie, as the absurdity of the doppelganger is often key to the plot. It might be argued that’s part and parcel of the “Legend” title, an interrogation of where myth and reality meet. If so, Helgeland fails spectacularly.
With the Kemps, they may not be in Hardy’s league as performers, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t mostly serviceable. What they do have, and this can’t be under-emphasised, is the natural facility of being actual brothers. It informs their scenes, and means there’s a shorthand that needs no overstatement (something Helgeland is repeatedly guilty of). On a more practical level too, when they’re both in a scene together they’re both in a scene together, and the viewer doesn’t start thinking about trick shots or become distracted from the moment.
The picture, which can be found on YouTube, misses a number of elements that Legend at least picks up the slack on (although Legend frustratingly grasps pieces of plot and never expands them enough to satisfy). So we don’t have Reggie’s stint in prison. Most crucially, there’s no Leslie Payne (and so one of the sources of conflict between the brothers is diffused) and so there train of events leading to the murder of Jack The Hat McVitie (a magnificently seedy, derelict Tom Bell) is absent. We see nothing of the police investigation, and rather substantially Lord Boothby also gets no attention. This means that, when the murders of McVitie and George Cornell (Steven Berkoff) occur, its positioned as something of a “the brothers clean house moment” (the premeditated nature of McVitie’s demise is more accurate than in Legend, while both pictures make a point of feeding Reggie’s behaviour into the recent suicide – or was it – of Frances).
As noted though, both pictures are frustratingly low on the brothers’ crime and the causes of the brothers’ crime. The Krays was released in the same year as Goodfellas, and Legend is clearly (partly) influenced by Scorsese’s classic, but neither is able to work that kind of smoothly confident depiction of the ins and outs of the gangster trade into its fabric. We have little idea of how widely their empire stretches, what they own, what they do, and how they operate. The odd scene of them climbing out the back of a van and firing machine guns in a bar isn’t enough, nor is the meeting with their American backers (this one doesn’t have Chazz Palminteri, or Ronnie’s humorous confessional, but it scores for the downright peculiarity of the mobster presenting Ronnie with a gold snake while all he has in return is a framed photo of the extended Kray family).
The violence in the picture is more starkly effective than in Helgeland’s movie. You wouldn’t call Legend exactly sanitised, but it lacks real impact; even the murder of Jack “The Hat” seems to have been built around the reactions of the (invented) onlookers and the pay-off line to Ronnie. Peter Medak has attacked most genres as a director, with varying degrees of success (he’s nearly 80 and still working, recently contributing to Hannibal). The year after The Krays he depicted another famous criminal case, that of Derek Bentley in Let Him Have It and went on to contribute to Homicide: Life on the Street. He has directed lightweight TV fare like Hart to Hart and fantasy such as The Twilight Zone and Carnivale. I think his dalliances with horror (The Changeling, the ill-met Species II) might be most informing of how he depicts the criminal world, though. He isn’t willing to soft pedal underworld behaviour, or give it a sheen the way Helgeland does. It’s serious, brutal unpleasantness, and one of the first things we see the adult brothers do is etch out a Chelsea Smile, something Helgeland ignores completely.
Ridley (well-known as an idiosyncratic director in his own right; it might have been interesting to see his movie of his own script, one with more than enough offbeat imagery as it is, from monochrome swans to crocodiles to snakes) and Medak are also big on the weird duality between the brothers, lending their acts a strangely sinister “evil twins” vibe (there’s also a distracting cameo from Stephen “Blakey” Lewis during this section). With early scenes where they answer in unison in class, this could be leading to a supernatural rather than a crime flick. Michael Kamen’s score is particularly effective in this regard, steering events of kilter, as if the brothers’ reality is constantly spiralling from their grasp.
Katie Hardie’s Frances isn’t central to the movie in the same way as Emily Browning in Legend, but if anything her sad plight is the more effective for not being privy to her inner thoughts. The claustrophobia of the prison she enters when she marries Reggie is palpable. There’s none of the triteness and sentimentalising of Helegland, and instead we feel the crushing terror of someone divested of any freewill or personality. Legend depicts Frances’ isolation through the present of a car that lies abandoned because Reggie never teaches her to drive. The Krays gives us a more potent scene where Reggie buys her dresses for each day of the year. She protests that she likes to do her own shopping to which Reggie cheerfully but chillingly responds ”It’s not as if you’ve go any money of your own, is it?”
Ronnie’s relationship with/antagonism towards Frances is marginalised, but there’s a fine minimalist stroke at the outset that speaks more loudly than any amount of heavy-handed dialogue. The first time Reggie meets Frances, Ronnie sees them across the club. Becoming enraged, he picks a fight with a patron who is quickly on the receiving end of a Chelsea Smile (“I’m going to make you laugh for the rest of your life”).
The major difference, though, is the way Ridley makes the devoted matriarchy of the brothers’ existence central (older brother Charlie also gets a look in, unilike in Legend). Whitelaw is quite superb as Violet Kray, steely, doting and no-nonsense. She isn’t dismissive of Frances the way Violet is in Legend, but it’s completely clear where her daughter-in-law stands in importance. Legend really misses not having the boys holding their meetings at their mother’s house, with the informality of her tea and biscuits and presiding naturalism towards the gang bosses who just happen to be her offspring. It was a mistake for Helgeleand to diminish Violet’s role, presumably as a response to potential comparisons with this picture.
That said, there probably is too much indulgence the family at the expense of other elements. What we have would work if the picture lasted another hour, but as noted, there’s a sense the “life” gets short shrift. Violet’s strength is emblazoned, from removing Ronnie from hospital when he has diphtheria, to her announcement, in response to their National Service, “No one takes my boys away from me”. The natural culmination of this sees useless husband Charlie (Alfred Lynch) threaten her and the boys rising as one either side of their mum. Charlie backs off.
But the emphasis on “Men, they know nothing”, while yielding individually powerful moments is more the heavy-handed tack one would expect from Helgeland. The boys’ young life is amid a household of women (and Reggie’s White Cliffs honeymoon is interrupted by the death of one of these nurturers). There’s a powerful scene – the sort of thing that could easily have ended up on the cutting room floor as superfluous – where Rose (Susan, sister of Mick, Fleetwood) recounts the horrors of the Blitz (seen earlier for the kids as a magical time of tales of their granddad in the Underground recounting tales of Jack the Ripper), and the torments of men; “Bullets and dead babies” before recalling a protracted labour where she had to “cut the baby’s head off to save the mother’s life”, who then died anyway.
The gangland aspect is best personified by Steven Berkoff’s Cornell, who is given significantly more screen time than Shane Attwooll’s equivalent in Legend. Just by the mere fact of being Berkoff he has more presence (he’s also shot through the pimple on his forehead, making it something of a bizarre target). Berkoff’s Cornell is a worthy loud-mouthed foe, mocking and undaunted even in the face of a gun pointed at his head. And, while Sam Spruell is very strong in Legend, Bell’s degraded McVitie is conjured with vile disarray that informs indifference to his demise; the scene in which he gets annoyed with his girlfriend for calling him bald and pushes her out of a moving car (her back is broken) is a concise a piece of character work as we need.
Reggie and Ronnie here are more symbiotic than in Legend, where Hardy employs – in particular with the amusingly exaggerated Ronnie – various actorly extravagances to distinguish them. The question arising there, though, is how they ever amounted to anything when it seemed Ronnie constantly put spanners in the works. Here, his psychosis is less invasive, so their relationship is more intimate. Consequently, it’s more believable when he goads his brother to finish off McVitie. Helgeland achieves dramatic conflict between the two, but it’s at the cost of seeing them as a united force to be reckoned with.
The picture ends, appropriately to its theme (is there a subtext here that the non-traditional family unit yields psychopaths?), has the brothers attend Violet’s 1982 funeral in handcuffs. It lends The Krays a sense of completeness and purpose Legend lacks (that picture has to carry on after it’s main female character has died). In general, The Krays is a more successful picture than Legend, although it is nevertheless respectable rather than remarkable, with the odd narrative or visual twist that stands out.