UK (2015) Dir. Brian Helgeland
“Everyone had a story about The Krays”
Whilst I wasn’t around in the 1960’s, mine is that my grandmother at one time lived round the corner from The Krays but had no idea of the extent of their criminal activities until their arrest in 1968 became major headline news!
They may have been notoriously violent gangsters who ruled the East End of London during the late 1950’s and into the Swinging Sixties but the antics of twins Reggie and Ronnie Kray are an indelible and fascinating part of modern British folklore. What is the definitive story however remains a clouded issue, with accounts differing from source to source.
Director Brian Helgeland’s Legend is the second big screen attempt to tell the Krays’ story (a straight to DVD effort The Rise OF The Krays was also recently released), following on from 1990’s The Krays which starred Spandau Ballet siblings Gary and Martin Kemp in the title roles. If you have seen that film forget what you saw because this one is very different.
Narrated by Frances Shea (Emily Browning), we first meet Reggie Kray (Tom Hardy) who has successfully kept the brothers’ “business” – i.e.: a stranglehold on the East End underworld via protection rackets and the like – afloat while brother Ronnie (Hardy) is in a psychiatric hospital. Reggie meets and becomes smitten with Frances, younger sister of his driver, Frankie (Colin Morgan) which comes a shock to the newly released and openly gay Ronnie.
As the Kray empire builds, Ronnie becomes increasingly frustrated by Frances being in their lives, creating a divide between the brothers. When Reggie is taken back to prison, Ronnie runs their nightclub into the ground causing further rifts in the relationship, especially as Reggie had promised Frances he would go straight – a promise his bond with his brother forces him to break.
Helgeland based his script on the book The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins by John Pearson. First published in 1972, Pearson was commissioned to write a biography by the twins in 1967 and throughout their jail terms, both brothers wrote extensive letters to him which served as the source material for this and two more books on The Krays.
Because the story differs quiet vastly from the aforementioned 1990 film from Peter Medak, aside from some mutual key details, it is hard to know what Helgeland did or didn’t change, omit or over dramatise for his script. What remains unchanged is the tale of Frances unwittingly driving a wedge between the brothers, her subsequent unhappiness of being an ignored gangster’s wife and her suicide by overdose in 1967.
It is hard not to compare the two films because of the differences. For instance Reggie is far more dangerous yet the true leader of the outfit here whilst in Medak’s film, he was portrayed more as a second to Ron. Also Medak showed how Reggie worshipped the ground Frances walked on – Helgeland shows him gradually becoming hostile towards her and assaulting her, which Kray associates completely refute as true.
Finally the 1990 film had a solid moral core provided by the Twins’ adored mother Violet, yet here she is a footnote, with two short appearances, neither one showing her to be the resilient matriarch that she was said to be.
But, Legend has enough clout and coverage of true events not featured in the prior film to make this a worthy watch in its own right, acting as companion piece if you will to Medak’s perspective. Because the story begins at the height of the Krays’ reign of terror, Helgeland is able to focus more on the changing landscape of their lives rather than a complete biography, meaning we get right down to business.
Unfortunately there is something of a comedic aura present to undermine the shocking brutality of the blood feud between the Krays and the Richardson Brothers, represented by Paul Bettany as Charlie. The banter exchanges during these scenes is full of Lock, Stock… -esque zingers and cheeky cockney humour, while a (real life) scenario involving the brothers escaping prison via a convenient political SNAFU echoes a Comic Strip spoof in its handling.
Possibly high on the unconscious comedy list is the physical appearance of Ronnie Kray. Hardy’s performance as both brothers is nothing short of phenomenal (more of this later) but Ron unfortunately looks like the sort of speccy characters Patrick Marber would adopt in the 1990’s TV new satire The Day Today. If you don’t know the character then this reference won’t affect this for you.
What this film has over its predecessor is a huge budget, evident from the opening frame with the glossy photography, extravagant sets and of course the flawless rendering of the brothers onscreen together. While the Kemp brothers didn’t have such an issue Hardy was tasked with adopting two different personalities, characteristics, physical appearances and quirks, performing them alternatively against each other when necessary.
Therefore it should come as no surprise that Hardy’s sublime commitment to both roles is the driving force and main spectacle of this film. Doing double duty is not a new occurrence in film but it has to be said, without hyperbole, Hardy raised raise the bar and then some as both Krays. His Reggie, is smooth, direct, almost heroic yet darker than Martin Kemp’s; his Ron is cynical, paranoid and unnervingly menacing.
Despite the 130 minute duration the other characters are for rather thinly sketched, even the prominent ones, remaining on the periphery of the audience’s investment. Only Frances is afforded some development, requiring Emily Browning to look forlorn and lost for most part, but she does engender some sympathy for Frances.
If we judge Legend as straight up crime drama, it is a charismatic piledriver of a film; as a story about The Krays (regardless of its credible source), it lacks the heart, grittiness and emotional substance of the 1990 film. If Hardy’s stellar performance could be paired with the script from the earlier effort though…