Rapist and Wife Beater: The Movie
Can an actor be compelling and ridiculous in the same movie, you ask? Well Tom Hardy has a stab at answering that question in Brain Helgeland’s Legend, in which careful blocking and conspicuous digital compositing allow him to play both Ronnie and Reggie Kray – the East End psychos venerated by a stupid local population who missed that the order they brought to the streets was underwritten by intimidation, extortion and murder.
As Reggie Kray, whose achievements worthy of celluloid immortality include being an abusive, controlling husband and brutally stabbing Jack “the hat” McVitte to death at a house party (a killing for which the movie is an apologist), Hardy adds a judicious, some might say abhorrent, drop of matinee good looks, brutish charm and veiled threat. As Ronnie, who booked his place in the movie by shooting a man in the head (his rape of male prisoners is omitted) he’s always bespectacled to aid differentiation, as the real twin wasn’t, and given comedy false teeth, while imbuing the more volatile brother with a volcanic temper and affected wide-eyed, camp persona.
This makes for great entertainment, after all who doesn’t like a comedy villain whose funny voice and off-the-wall digressions induce titters-a-plenty, but that’s the problem with Helgeland’s self-proclaimed Kray legend – it’s indistinguishable from Guy Richie’s Technicolor gangster romps. You’ve licence to be silly when you’re a middle-class filmmaker serving up pulp, but Legend’s allegedly a biopic. Getting off on the violence and making your characters jaunty in this context looks a lot like buying into the same dumb mythology it’s your duty as a filmmaker to debunk. Who was the creative consultant on this movie, Barbara Windsor?
Of course Helgeland will claim that he’s made a concerted effort not to shy away from the ugly reality of the Kray period. His choice of title aside, which may suggest verisimilitude wasn’t the structuring agenda of the film, the main evidence for this is beyond the grave narration, Sunset Boulevard style, from Emily Browning’s doomed Frances Shea, wife of Reggie and suspicious death by overdose victim. Browning’s there to remind us that her husband was duplicitous and addicted to gangster life, but her suffering at his hand is barely felt – a few shots in which she looks bored and pops the odd pill. There’s no creeping sense of her mental decline; Browning never moves beyond disgruntled wife. Yet her character is supposed to be the film’s heart, the woman that tears the veil from our eyes and sates our bloodlust. Frances telling her story from the great beyond, is, naturally, a device more associated with hardboiled fiction than realism, in keeping with the movie’s curious heightened reality, and it’s odd that Shea, having access to the all-knowing afterlife, tells us she’s a suicide victim, despite later allegations that a jealous Ronnie Kray had her murdered.
Legend’s ultimate failure is thus its surrender to myth, with a mass audience in mind, rather than a willingness to take it on. The aesthetic is glossy, the soundtrack choices unashamedly nostalgic (including new commissions for ‘60’s tribute Duffy), and whereas this makes the attraction for thugs and idiot celebrities easier to understand, for surely the glitz and the colour is what they’ve chosen to remember too, it manifestly doesn’t help a contemporary audience understand the reality. In Hegeland’s Lock Stock remembrance, the police are officious, servile nothings, the women are tragic but decorative, and the victims got their just desserts. The Krays would have fawwwkin’ loved it.