Tom Hardy snarls and spits his way through this violent, glossy portrait of The Kray brothers and their reign over East London. So impressive is his dual performance as the sociopathic but charming Reggie and the feral, psychotic Ronnie, that the rest of the film suffers in his wake.
Writer/Director Brian Helgeland (who won an Oscar for his LA Confidential screenplay) employs some weak narrative choices to piece together a cohesive story. He manages it a bit but thinly sketched supporting characters and abandoned story arcs result in a picture that is all mouth and no trousers.
Legend opens with Reggie wooing local girl Frances (a drab Emily Browning – who also provides the equally drab voiceover) while trying to grow his criminal empire. His twin brother Ronnie has been incarcerated in a hospital for the criminally insane but thanks to a bit of pressure, is released and back on the streets. The streets, in this case, is a rundown caravan in the middle of a forest where he resides with his young male lover (Taron Egerton).
Pursued by Detective Superintendent Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read (Christopher Eccleston) and goaded by rival gangster Charlie Richardson (Paul Bettany), The Krays, with the assistance of ‘business manager’ Leslie Payne (David Thewlis), soon acquire a nightclub and casino which gives them both power and a degree of legitimacy.
When Reggie ends up back inside for a suspended sentence, the unhinged Ronnie is left to his own devices and runs one of the businesses into the ground. Frances, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly desperate with her husbands criminal lifestyle, feeling isolated and sidelined in favour of her brother-in-law and the growing empire.
Hardy is sensational as both brothers – managing to create two distinct personalities and characters that are believable and nuanced. His interepration of Ronnie, in particular, is the more challenging of the two with tics and mannerisms that could have easily spilled into caricature.
His homosexuality and relationship with Teddy Smith, arguably more successful than Reggie and Frances, is never explored and Helgeland opts for some cheap visual and verbal gags that are designed to make a straight, male audience comfortable with a gay protagonist. In this day and age it’s not only disappointing but borderline offensive.
None of the supporting characters are given any room to breath. Browning, adopting a solid East End accent and look, is completely one note from start to finish. There are hints of Frances’ mental fragility but they are never developed or explained.
Even stranger is her voiceover (given the sad outcome of Frances’ life, making her the bridge between the audience and the story is completely implausible) which suggests that these are two completely different people, so insightful and eloquent are her thoughts on proceedings as opposed to her actions within the story. Eccleston and Bettany are completely wasted while Thewlis manages to register a few moments particular in his confrontations with Ronnie.
There are some impressive flourishes – a violent confrontation between Ronnie and Reggie half way through the film – is masterfully executed and brilliantly played by Hardy – but there are also some sloppy directorial moments that jar particularly between Frances and Reggie where the actors seem to be repositioned from shot to shot. Other technical aspects are good, particularly costumes and the use of East End locations.
Peter Medak’s 1990 film ‘The Krays’ focused far more on the relationship the brothers had with their mother Violet and how she influenced them both. You can’t help but wonder how the magnificent Billie Whitelaw (who played Violet) would have sparked some real cinematic magic with Hardy, and how much better a film that would have been.
Legend drops us right into the action with the Krays, Ronnie and Reggie, firmly established as gangsters of the East End of London. The choice not to begin with a clichéd prologue was one of the better decisions made by director Brian Helgeland (Oscar winning writer of LA Confidential).
The other great choice made by Helgeland was casting Tom Hardy as both Ronnie and Reggie. Hardy brings style and panache to both the roles of Reggie, the sociopathic charmer, and Ronnie, the psychotic loose cannon that needs to be kept on a short leash. Hardy cements his status as one of the greatest British actors of his generation.
It is a shame that the film does not match his terrific performances. The plot is thin and the supporting characters are given little depth or space to develop.
Helgeland adopts an unconventional and potentially interesting voiceover by using Emily Browning, as Reggie’s wife Frances, to narrate the story. The problem is that she is the woman in the Krays’ lives that most likely knew the least about what they were truly involved in.
On several occasions she makes reference to the fact that she knows Reggie is a “gangster” but she doesn’t seem to understand what that actually entails and instead narrates us through a surface story made up of various conjecture that contributed to the creation of the ‘legend’ that was The Krays.
It is no secret that many of the stories that are connected to Ronnie and Reggie are often exaggerated. And so here we don’t get a in depth ‘real’ depiction (if such a thing exists) of the Krays but a collection of hearsay, most of which we already know.
Interesting characters such as Violet Kray (Jane Wood) and Charlie Richardson (brilliantly played by Paul Bettany) are barely given any time to shine in a story in which they would have played a significant role in the real East End.
The soundtrack feels out of place with several obvious and therefore dull song choices. The locations often felt faked as we are swept through 1960s London, very much seen through the eyes of an American – the number of references to tea become uncountable.
It’s not all bad, Tom Hardy is the stand out of this film and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Academy remember him come February. His performances are so unique that after about 5 minutes you forget that it is the same person. Reggie has swagger and charm whereas Ronnie is someone who wears his psychosis on his sleeve – but you wouldn’t want to mess with either of them that’s for sure.
I was expecting much more from this film and was disappointed at the under development of the characters and the abandonment of what I think would have been much more interesting plot lines.
Matt Williams @mattmusic78
Niki Alexandrou @nikialexandrou