I know a lot about the Krays. I’ve read enough trashy true crime books to have garnered a pretty solid knowledge of the infamous gangster twins of London’s East End in the 60s. But even those with little awareness of their brutal exploits will have absorbed some of their cultural influence. Name a British gangster film or London set crime novel (Martina Cole being the main offender) from the past 20 years or so and the chances are it was at least partly inspired by the pair.
All of this means that writer-director Brian Helgeland has an arduous task ahead of him in telling the well-worn story afresh when it’s become an industry unto itself. He doesn’t quite succeed but what he does offer is a worthwhile addition to the mythos, albeit one that will inevitably divide audiences.
Legend isn’t so much a gangster film as it is a movie about what it means to be a gangster in a movie. With its slick cinematography and forays into ultra-violence, it’s a clear reflection of every story the Krays influenced as well as some it didn’t (hi there, long one take tracking shots, Scorsese sees what you’re doing). It succeeds in building the legend of the title, and generally strikes a balance between showing the charming appeal of the twins while reminding the audience of their amoral brutality. A lot does feel cut out – a subplot involving the American mafia coming to London goes nowhere – but the final 15 minutes of the film serve to demonstrate the fickle finite nature of the ‘respect’ the Krays forced to their favour through threats and violence.
It’s easy to see why Hardy would be so drawn to the dual roles of Ronnie & Reggie Kray. It’s the kind of role
that screams awards bait and presents the challenges most actors would kill for. Tom Hardy, having the best year of his career between Mad Max: Fury Road, London Road and the upcoming The Revenant, apparently requested the role of the more unhinged brother Ronnie over the suave lad about town Reggie, which led to him playing both parts. Unfortunately for him, it’s in the latter role that he excels.
Given free rein to exude his natural charm (for better or worse), Hardy’s Reggie is the calmer, more ambitious force of the pair, whereas his Ronnie is pure psycho. There are very few shades to Ronnie in this film – a sadistic and uncontrollably violent brute with severe mental issues who also happened to be openly gay – and Hardy relies a little too heavily on his twitchy jaw and bug-eyed stare to carry the role through the broader moments (although he does have the lion’s share of the top one liners). It’s not necessarily his fault – Ronnie ends up a supporting player in his own story by the end. And yes, don’t think it bypassed me that a certificate 18 film featuring brutal attacks with hammers couldn’t include two men kissing (but we do get Hardy spanking a half-naked man with a carpet beater).
Emily Browning offers real fragility with a steely core to a potentially weak role as Frances, Reggie’s wife, who also acts as narrator of the film. In this job, she is given a thankless task of bolstering the legend of the Krays, undercutting it infrequently but not enough. While the film does a good enough job of doing that by its end, particularly in one key scene where Reggie finally loses his cool, it feels unfair to chain Frances to this role given everything she goes through. The remainder of the supporting cast are serviceable but easily outshone by both Hardy and the Krays (I would have loved more screen-time for Ronnie’s gleefully sadistic gay sidekicks).
I’m fascinated to find out how this film goes down with an American audience, not just because of their potential unfamiliarity with the Krays story, but because the film feels very American. Stylistically, it’s so blatantly walking in the footsteps of Goodfellas that you keep waiting for Ronnie to ask if he’s funny like a clown. Legend is thoroughly entertaining with Hardy one for two in terms of a great performance, but in a world where people lined the streets to applaud Reggie Kray at his funeral as Frank Sinatra’s My Way played, it’s hard to avoid the possibility that maybe this story didn’t need a legend so much as it needed a debunking.