Eye For Film >> Movies >> Legend (2015) Film Review
Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall
Brian Helgeland’s dramatisation of the gangster hijinks of the notorious London East End crime brothers, the Kray twins, comes 25 years after director Peter Medak tried his hand at the same subject matter. Medak had the novel approach of casting Spandau Ballet brothers Gary and Martin Kemp as Ronnie and Reggie Kray respectively, to unsettling effect. Though his film plays a sort of hopscotch in dodging in between the gaps of Medak’s film’s story, presumably to avoid appearing too similar, Helgeland has tried a similar stunt casting approach for his lead roles. And so we have Tom Hardy as Reggie… and Tom Hardy as Ronnie. It’s an idea guaranteed to get eyebrows twitching given Hardy’s undeniable ability to project presence on screen, but the final film only partly lives up to the promise.
Helgeland draws on the book The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins by John Pearson, which deals with the rise and fall of the duo, the relationship that bound them together and the events that led to their downfall and imprisonment for life in 1969. Right away the difference between the 1990 Medak film and Helgeland’s picture is obvious, this is a 1960s East End recreated with all the benefits of CGI enhancement. It looks far glossier, brighter, almost inviting. Whereas Medak’s film went with an elliptical narrative that took in the Krays' lives from childhood to jail, Helgeland’s film begins with the twins already established as gangland rulers, with Reggie (the nice one, or the nicer one to be more accurate) enjoying life as a club owner and general unfussy intimidator while the wide-eyed, pudgier and muffled-sounding Ronnie is the one no one wants to piss off given his hair-trigger temper (the film first introduces him as he is being declared insane in an asylum, freed only as a result of intimidation of the psychiatrist).
The story told is undeniably a familiar one, though Helegand narrows in at times on different events and aspects of the Kray’s lives compared to the 1990 version. There is an admirable attempt to give Frances, Reggie’s eventual wife, more of a voice than she had in the 1990 film. In fact, she is the voice of the film, with actress Emily Browning providing a voiceover that doesn’t quite come off given it feels a bit flat. This is still a man’s world of course, and the character of Frances is doomed by real-life history to end badly, whilst Helgeland’s film lacks the same kind of female commentary on masculinity and violence that Medak worked into his to compensate. Ronnie’s homosexuality is also made more prominent, as is the role of his lover and right hand man Edward "Mad Teddy" Smith, played with some swagger by Taron Edgerton.
Where the film’s definitely differ is in terms of aesthetic and pacing. Both films showcase a highly stylised approach to violence, but Helgeland’s film is louder, faster and everything seems heightened. Not quite to Guy Ritchie Lock, Stock levels but this doesn’t feel much like a realistic London, which is odd given the filmmakers claims to have deeply researched the Kray’s backgrounds and shot on location as much as possible (the E. Pellicci cafe is there, still standing proud). Maybe this was an attempt to show how glamorous the Kray twins imagined their whole lives were in their own twisted minds. The fast pacing allied to some dark humour and a few absurd moments certainly makes for entertaining viewing, even though over time you keep waiting for the film to hit some deeper note, some overarching through line, about what we are seeing.
And then there is Tom Hardy. It goes without saying that he has a funny accent in this film. Actually more like two. The CGI work is impressive at keeping the two brothers believably in frame, but the variety of physical tics, accents and prosthetics either coming from or stuck to the head of Tom Hardy deserve credit too. But Hardy doesn’t really have the material to enable us to come away from this with anything particularly revelatory or stirring about the brothers even if he can deliver the charm, humour as well as physicality of each at different points in the narrative. Medak’s film suggested some creepy supernatural bond between the two, with Ronnie like a kind of black hole pulling Reggie in, and the shadow of their mother unsettlingly hanging over everything. Helgeland removes their mother almost entirely from the picture, but you never feel much of a tense push/pull between the two Krays, even though the dynamic is on the surface similar. Ronnie just goes nuts every so often, Reggie fights him, they make up and things continue. Hardy does grab the attention as Ronnie, but it is a performance so unhinged and oversized that it even outdoes the caffeinated aesthetic of the entire film. It unbalances it.
Helgeland’s Legend isn't a bad film by any means. Flawed though it is, it is perfectly watchable, and has energy and humour. It just never feels that it is living up to its mission statement implied by its title - interrogating a legend.Reviewed on: 10 Sep 2015
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