(SPOILERS) There’s a tendency to think of British crime movies as hard hitting and gritty, post-Get Carter at least. And, excepting those that followed in the wake of Tarantino’s rise (including Guy Ritchie’s knockabout romps and especially Danny Dyer’s highly particular oeuvre), that’s probably fair; the good ones, at least. The British period crime picture is something else, though. It isn’t a prolific sub-genre (notables include The First Great Train Robbery, The Bank Job, Brighton Rock, Let Him Have It), and its fraternity are spread across variety of eras and subjects, both fiction and fact-based. Legend arrives a quarter of a century on from the previous take on The Krays, starring the Kemp brothers of Spandau Ballet fame. It ought to have been the opportunity to tell the definitive, or at least an authoritative, version of their “legend”. Instead, it amounts to something less than its less prestigious predecessor.
Legend certainly doesn’t come up short with the talent in front of the camera, though. Tom Hardy’s dual performances are electrifying, even if, even with today’s effects at the makers’ disposal, the seams occasionally show when he’s sharing a shot with himself. Ronnie and Reggie Kray have been clearly delineated, such that Ronnie is exclusively homosexual and Reggie exclusively heterosexual. Likewise, Reggie is cool and collected, the occasional violent episode aside, while Ronnie is all-psychotic. That probably helps on a basic storytelling level, but it’s a sign of the lack of nuance pervading the picture generally.
Hardy’s Ronnie is a frequently hilarious creation, all waxy open mouth like an apple’s just been plucked from it and a response time not always in step with the world around him, reflecting his mind. Hiding behind thick glasses helps cement Ronnie as a grotesque caricature, because you can’t see Hardy’s eyes (he reminded me a little of Vic Reeves’ Kinky John, although I ‘ve seen various comedians cited; if nothing else, the part proves Hardy has an untapped flair for comedy).
This distancing emphasises a with Reggie; when there’s a close-up scene – particularly in romance mode, which the picture possibly ill-advisedly focuses on to the diminishment of their criminal shenanigans –Hardy’s eyes plead this hardened criminal as a sensitive, soulful guy. Probably misunderstood. Until he rapes wife Frances (Emily Browning) that is, in a scene of almost classical reserve (the camera pulls out of the room as he assaults her, in contrast to the gangland acts of violence, perhaps betraying slightly bashfully that this isn’t based on any known incident).
Hardy delivers the brotherly bond between the duo without writer-director Brian Helgeland beating us over the head with the fact of it every few minutes. Yes, we understand; they can’t stand each other, but they love each other. We’d get it even if both of them didn’t keep mentioning it, and if Frances didn’t keep going on about it. It might have benefited the screenplay to spend more time with the broader familial relationship, but one scene aside Violet (Jane Wood) barely gets a look in. Perhaps Helegland had Billie Whitelaw’s performance in The Krays understandably playing on his mind, so elected to avoid comparisons. If so, he’s rather thrown the baby out with the bathwater to focus on areas Peter Medak’s picture didn’t.
Hardy’s double act, as obvious as the character lines are, is at least boisterous and colourful (Ronnie’s matter of fact announcement to mobster Chazz Palmientri – no typecasting there – that he prefers boys is particularly chucklesome). Browning has no such luck. Frances is one long cliché of the girl who didn’t/knew what she was getting herself into, continually pleading with hubby to get out of the business, and then… Except that Frances also has the most rote of voiceovers, every line a mealy platitude. The narration is problematic for other reasons, but one comes away mainly impressed that Browning makes you care as much as you do for Frances despite of the writing doing its utmost to counter this.
The rest of the cast are similarly impressive, from Paul Bettany’s scene-stealing fake-nosed cameo in the early section as rival gangster Charlie Richardson to David Thewlis’ over-confident business manager Leslie Payne (one of those great performances where you’re constantly aghast that Payne is pushing it when every word out of his mouth is further aggravating Ronnie). Taron Egerton – who I couldn’t place despite Kingsman – is Ronnie’s right hand lover “Mad Teddy” Smith, Christopher Eccleston is “Nipper” Read (the copper out to bring down the twins), Paul Anderson particularly notable as Albert Donoghue (Reggie’s chief lieutenant) and Sam Spruell makes the most of a gift of a part as hapless Jack “The Hat” McVitie. There’s also good work from Tara Fitzgerald, hopefully not consigned to cold-hearted matriarch roles with Frankie’s mother coming on the back of Game of Thrones.
Some of these roles don’t work out so well; Kevin McNally’s Harold Wilson seems like an example of trying to reference the scale of the Kray problem without achieving remotely achieving that. John Sessions pops up as Lord Boothby, but this whole thread is dealt with in a rush of narration from Frances. Instead, we’re subject to endless circular domestics between her and Reggie.
Helegland adapted John Pearson’s 1972 biography of the twins, but appears to have been influenced by such divergent touchstones as Goodfellas (a narration provided by the main gangster’s wife) and The Lovely Bones (a narration provided by the dead protagonist; it’s been claimed that Ronnie murdered Frances, making some of Helegeland’s confabulations here rather laughable if true). Helegland’s Oscar for L.A. Confidential was much deserved, but the thriving-on-its-fiction canvas of that picture is ultimately ill-fitting for the Kray twins.
As a screenwriter, Helegland’s career subsequent to Confidential has been patchy. As a director, even more so. Payback was reworked by Mel Gibson, A Knight’s Tale got amiably by on its soundtrack and 42 was a thoroughly competent – read unremarkable – biopic. Legend suggests he has no real idea of the story he wants to tell or a particular passion for the material. One would expect a clear stylistic approach given the decision to nurture a ghostly narrator, but it’s matter-of-factly redundant. Cinematographer Dick “Poop” Pope did a magnificent job on Mr Turner, but his digital lensing of ‘60s London is blandly poppy, the sort of solid stock colours and pervading flatness one expects from period TV drama.
There’s no sense of atmosphere, grimness or edge, and Helgeland’s compositions are entirely lacking in inspiration (it feels as if he’s shooting everything in medium shot, even though he isn’t). He’s also intent on immersing the picture in obvious or tonally inappropriate pop hits. And, when the hits aren’t coming, Carter Burwell’s score smothers every scene to the extent you wonder if he was afraid it would be lost in the mix (I have a feeling it’s a score that’s rather good on its own, but in the context of the movie it’s a a constant bludgeoning irritation).
Visually this is much, much closer to the candy-coloured whimsy of Absolute Beginners or Telstar. If you think of the guy who made A Knight’s Tale directing this, you probably have a good idea of how superficial the confection ultimately feels. How Helegland thought that was appropriate over, say, the grain of Get Carter, only he can answer (again, perhaps he looked at The Krays and decided to go in the opposite direction).
But that said, individual scenes are – usually eruptions of violence – are never less than gripping, be it the Richardson Gang pub fight, the central altercation between Ronnie and Reggie, or the individual murders that get them both sent down. Helegland’s picture is watchable, because the subject matter, even as diluted, altered or mishandled as it is here, is interesting. And, on a very basic level, Tom Hardy is in most scenes of the movie, and he’s mesmerising. Legend isn’t a very good Krays movie, and it isn’t a very good gangster movie, but it’s further evidence that you can never get enough Tom Hardy.