D: Brian Helgeland / 131m
Cast: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Paul Anderson, Taron Egerton, Colin Morgan, Tara Fitzgerald, Sam Spruell, John Sessions, Chazz Palminteri, Paul Bettany, Kevin McNally, Shane Attwooll, Jane Wood
London, the 1960’s. The East End is home to two brothers, the confident, ambitious Reggie Kray (Hardy), and his psychotic twin Ronnie (Hardy). Together they run a criminal network based around providing protection to local businesses, while Reggie owns a club that attracts celebrities and politicians who like to mingle with London’s criminal element. The pair are well-liked in their local neighbourhood, and are both feared and respected. Reggie is continually followed by Detective Superintendent “Nipper” Read (Eccleston) who has been given the task of bringing the twins to justice. But they’re always one step ahead of him.
One morning, Reggie’s regular driver, Frankie Shea (Morgan) hasn’t shown up. Reggie goes to his house; the door is opened by Frankie’s sister, Frances (Browning). He’s immediately attracted to her and he asks her out. She agrees to go out with him, despite her mother’s misgivings, and despite Reggie’s reputation. Meanwhile, one of the Krays’ gang has been caught “working” on the south side of the river, an area run by the Richardson family. This infraction leads to a meeting between the Krays and the Richardsons on neutral ground, but the Richardsons send some of their men instead to get rid of Reggie and Ronnie once and for all. But the twins prove too much for the men, and are all viciously beaten up.
With no other serious rivals, the Krays’ criminal empire spreads further afield. With the aid and advice of their accountant, Leslie Payne (Thewlis) – whom Ronnie dislikes and is suspicious of – they take over a casino in an attempt to earn some legitimate money (while still maintaining their regular criminal activities). An old warrant sees Reggie spend six months in prison, during which time he and Frances grow closer, though she seeks reassurances that he’ll be more honest when he gets out. But it doesn’t happen, and even with her hopes dashed, Reggie and Frances get married. Ronnie is welcoming at first, but their marriage leads him to think that Reggie is trying to move on without him. At the same time, Read’s investigation is sidelined when he allows himself to be photographed with the Krays in their casino.
Frances finds herself isolated, and begins to rely more and more on medication to ease her growing sense of anguish. Reggie is oblivious, and has more urgent matters to attend to when Ronnie kills one of the Richardsons’ men, George Cornell (Attwooll) in a pub in front of witnesses. In order to protect his brother, Reggie must intimidate the witnesses, which he does, but when Ronnie hatches another plan to eliminate a perceived enemy, and hires Jack “The Hat” McVitie (Spruell) to do the job, it leads to the end of their criminal careers and the empire they’ve built up.
Adapted from the book The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins by John Pearson (who was once an assistant to Ian Fleming), Legend is a curious movie in that it takes the two most notorious criminals known in Britain in the last sixty years, and tells their story in such a way that, on the whole, they don’t seem that bad. Sure they use intimidation and violence as a way of getting what they want from people, but we don’t see any of this, so the viewer has to take it for granted that they were as nasty as their “legend” would have it. Instead, writer/director Helgeland shows us the Kray twins as entrepreneurs, buying into legitimate businesses and making inroads into so-called polite society, including the patronage of Lord Boothby (Sessions), a predatory homosexual whose relationship with Ronnie leads to the Krays being acquitted at trial for fear of a government scandal. What’s given scant attention is their youth and how they got to where they were in the mid-Sixties, and how they actually attained the powerful position they enjoyed.
Then there’s the relationship between Reggie and Frances, which at first follows an almost predictable girl-meets-bad-boy scenario before settling down into something much darker and terrible. It’s hard to pick out just why Frances stays with Reggie for so long, because Helgeland doesn’t provide very many clues to help explain it all, and it’s equally unclear why Reggie wants Frances. It’s all very superficial, and though it’s based on real events etc., it doesn’t quite gel on screen, leaving the viewer with the feeling that whatever the truth about their marriage – and the movie makes some strong claims – there’s more to it than meets the eye (or is included in Helgeland’s script).
The same is true of the movie as a whole, with the sense that Helgeland’s adaptation isn’t concerned with providing any depth or subtext, leaving the poor viewer (again) suspecting that they just have to go along with everything and accept it all for what it is. It makes for a frustrating viewing experience as the characters – and there are a lot of them – all appear to lack an inner life (with the possible exception of Ronnie, whose inner life seems entirely weird and deranged). The movie also lacks a sense of time, its events and occurrences sometimes feeling like they’re happening in the absence of any recognisable timescale, or have been cherry-picked from Pearson’s book at random (one example: Frances meets Reggie when she’s sixteen but doesn’t marry him until she’s twenty-two). And that’s without mentioning that as a retelling of the Krays’ activities and lives, it’s not very faithful or accurate.
The period of the Krays’ infamy is, however, extremely well-realised, with the East End of London looking as foreboding and shadowy as it did back in the Sixties, and with the period detail proving impressive. In terms of the time and the place, Tom Conroy’s incredibly detailed production design is enhanced by Dick Pope’s sharply focused cinematography, and further augmented by Carter Burwell’s appropriately Sixties-style score. The costumes are also a plus, with the fashions of the time recreated in fine style by Caroline Harris, an underrated costume designer who has provided equally fine work on movies as varied as An Ideal Husband (1999), A Knight’s Tale (2001), and And When Did You Last See Your Father? (2007).
As to the performances, it’s either a one-man or a two-man show, depending on how you look at it. Hardy is magnificent in roles that it would be difficult now to imagine any other actor attempting. As the charming, urbane-sounding Reggie, Hardy does more with a glance than some actors can manage with a long speech and an unwavering close up. He’s magnetic in most of his scenes, grabbing the attention as firmly as if he had the viewer in a headlock, and making it difficult to look away from him. And as Ronnie it’s like watching a human shark, his dark eyes staring out from behind the character’s glasses with vicious intent, just waiting for the chance to explode, and speaking with the delusional belief that his ideas are as sane as he thinks they sound (at one point he comes out with a plan to protect the homeless children of Nigeria). In both cases, Hardy is superb, even if he’s let down by the material, but he’s such a good actor that he overcomes Helgeland’s negligence and commands the audience’s attention throughout.
In support, Browning is captivating and sincere as Frances, and finds layers in the role that aren’t so evident from the script, while Thewlis gives one of his best recent performances as Payne, the accountant who earns Ronnie’s enmity. Anderson is quietly effective as Reggie’s right-hand man Alby, Fitzgerald is a scornful Mrs Shea (she wears black to her daughter’s wedding), Sessions is suitably slimy as Lord Boothby, and Palminteri, as the Mafia representative who wants the Krays to run London as part of a criminal franchise overseen by Meyer Lansky, exudes a rough Italian charm that hides a more dangerous persona. Alas, Eccleston is given little to do beyond looking exasperated, and Spruell’s McVitie is required to “grow a pair” just when the script needs him to; up ’til then he’s the very definition of compliant.
Ultimately, Helgeland the writer undermines Helgeland the director, focusing on Reggie to the detriment of Ronnie, and trying to make this about Reggie’s loyalty to his brother, rather than the exploits that made them infamous (which are almost incidental here). Some scenes lack the intensity they deserve, as if Helgeland didn’t have the nerve to show some things as they actually occurred (McVitie’s murder was much more vicious than what is shown in the movie), and though the emphasis is quite rightly on the Krays, more time with some of the other characters would have added some richness to the material and kept it from feeling (on occasion) somewhat uninspired. Perhaps there’s a longer cut waiting to be released on DVD/Blu ray, and it fills in a lot of the gaps, but at this length, Helgeland’s scattershot approach to the Krays’ lives is too much of a hindrance to make it anything more than just okay.
Rating: 6/10 – missing the vital spark that would have elevated it into the realm of the truly great gangster movies, Legend instead squanders its chance and remains a mostly pedestrian account of the lives of two men who meant to rule London’s criminal underworld with four iron fists; not as violent as you might expect, but with two standout performances from Hardy to help compensate, this is one “real life” movie that feels like it could have, and should have, been a whole lot better.