Tom Hardy goes up against… erm… Tom Hardy in Brian Helgeland’s latest biopic, Legend, taking on the dual roles of Reggie and Ronnie Kray in this blemished portrait of the notorious gangster twins. Helgeland evokes the mood of Goodfellas with his gliding camerawork and ability to draw dark humour from gruesome violence, but ultimately there’s very little of substance beneath all the sparkle.
Hardy is on awards-worthy form with both his performances here, effortlessly emboldening his characters with distinct personalities so that he can convincingly share the screen with himself. That you instantly forget you are watching the same actor twice is perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid. He is, of course, assisted by some clever camerawork and a touch of digital pokery – a well-placed door frame here, a body-double or two there – allowing both characters to seamlessly appear on screen at the same time, including one electrifying sequence, in which the two brothers scrap like feral dogs, that is expertly choreographed – not to mention a truck-load of fun.
Based on John Pearson’s excellent biography, The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins, Legend does exactly that: charting Reggie and Ronnie’s ascent from small-time club owners in the East End to the toast of London, mixing with glitzy celebrities and sleazy politicians whilst maintaining an iron grip on a vicious criminal empire that encompassed the entire city.
It’s also a story about their relationship, and the meat of the tale is to be found in the fraternal friction that emerges when Ronnie’s psychotic tendencies become uncontrollable and Reggie’s loyalty to his brother is thrown into doubt by his budding romance with Emily Browning’s porcelain beauty, Frances. The scenes where the twins are at each others’ throats are the film’s strongest, crackling with an inescapable tension that reveals the flaw in their bond: blood binds them together in a relationship that will eventually destroy them both, along with everyone they hold close.
Hardy’s Reggie is the stronger of his two performances, decked in a sharp, well-tailored suit and sporting slicked-back hair and a cheeky smirk, he’s every inch the East End golden boy legend holds him to be. Hardy combines his natural steely charisma with a frighteningly short fuse to fully embody a character who is often as charming as he is unpredictably menacing.
While Hardy also impresses as Reggie’s younger brother, it’s somewhat disappointing to see Ronnie’s mental instability so often played for comic relief. With his buck teeth, gummy smile and loopy manner of conversation, Ronnie draws more than his fair share of laughs – a bizarre attempt to intimidate his rivals by rambling about westerns is a particular high point – but this depiction fails to fully capture the terrifying threat of a reckless man who doesn’t fully understand his own mind.
It’s just a shame that this quality of characterisation isn’t shared among the rest of the cast. David Thewlis and Christopher Ecclestone are barely noticeable as the Krays’ business partner and chief antagonist respectively, but it’s Browning who is particularly underserved as Reggie’s main squeeze Frances. Given the role of narrator by Helgeland, Frances is an odd choice to act as our way into the Krays’ dark world, especially when you consider she’s mostly on the periphery of her husband’s criminal activities. This leaves Browning lumbered with such a thin role – Frances is your bog-standard sweet girl who naively thinks she can change the bad boy she fell in love with – that she struggles to carry the narrative.
All of which means the story ultimately falls flat. There’s hardly any attempt to draw deeper meaning from the Krays’ violent tale – Helgeland is essentially guilty of regurgitating the gangsters’ Wikipedia bio with little in the way of interpretation – leaving very little space to build tension or escalate the drama, and the story eventually peters out with barely a whimper. An ending that doesn’t exactly live up to the promise of the film’s title.
Runtime: 131 mins; Genre: Crime Thriller; Released: 9 September 2015;
Director: Brian Helgeland; Writers: Brian Helgeland, John Pearson (novel)
Cast: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Ecclestone
Click here to watch a trailer for Legend