Monday, 7 September 2015


It's worth bearing in mind, as you settle in to watch Brian Helgeland's take on the story of the Kray twins, that it's called Legend. It's also worth bearing in mind one of Google's convenient definitions of the word 'legend':
"a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated"
Because a warts-and-all documentary about London's best-known villains this is not, and nor does it claim to be. Glossy as a magazine cover and as sharply-suited as a Bond film, Legend is entertaining enough but is so concerned with evoking a picture-postcard East End populated by gangsters, geezers and good-time girls that the cold, ruthless evil at its heart is buried under a thick veneer of slick camerawork and gorgeous lighting.
Tom Hardy, as you will be aware unless you live at the bottom of the Thames in a pair of concrete boots, plays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, with enormously watchable results. Hardy's Ron is a tremendous screen monster: his permanently frustrated, furious face, with its nose, lips and teeth all apparently fighting to get as far away from each other as possible, is frequently shot in leering close up. Hardy does a remarkable job of pulling Ron back from the brink of pantomime, despite some of Helgeland's best efforts to push him over.

Reg, on the other hand, is less successful. Written and played as a lovable rogue with the flawless good looks of a 21st century movie star, the character's resemblance to the Reggie Kray you've read about or seen in documentaries is barely there. Here, he's a cheeky chappie with an occasional violent streak you'd forgive him for every time he flashes you a smile. It's a morally questionable direction for the film to take, but there's a reason for it: Legend is told mostly from the point of view of Frances Shea, Reg's short-term wife, as he woos her by shinning up her drainpipe (not a euphemism) and looking like Tom Hardy. If we're to believe that she'd fall in love with Reg, we have to fall in love with him too, and there are few better ways to ensure that than to have him played by someone whose place near the top of various 'Sexiest Men Alive' lists is virtually assured for the rest of his life.
Spot the difference

Emily Browning is excellent as Frances, but the decision to tell the Krays' story through her eyes sidelines arguably more interesting narrative threads, like Christopher Eccleston's copper "Nipper" Read's dogged pursuit of the twins, and softens the story's least pleasant elements to a troubling degree. Working from this brief, cinematographer Dick Pope paints an undeniably stunning picture of 1960s London, but all that lustre means that when the horror comes, it's too unreal to feel.

The Krays were, let's not forget, bad guys. I don't doubt they loved each other and their dear old mum, but to romanticise their story to such extremes is a disservice to anyone who suffered at their hands. In a crucial scene, Reg snaps and viciously murders an associate; the camera lingers on the act as if forcing us to face the horror, but by this point we're immune to it. The scene is as stylised as everything else we've seen so far and is rendered toothless by its own technical proficiency. Tellingly, the most unpleasant scene in the film - which involves Reg and Frances in a particularly rough patch of their marriage - occurs offscreen, and is all the more necessarily repulsive for it.

Still, if you don't mind your legends painted in broad but undeniably entertaining strokes, there's a lot to enjoy here. The costumes, production design and score - which all contribute to the romanticism - are as shimmeringly glamorous as the cinematography. Helgeland and Pope pull off indisputable magic with Hardy's double role, and toss off shots like the lengthy, Goodfellas-esque swagger through a pub that pointedly takes in casual violence and tender courting with apparently effortless style. But much of the nuts and bolts of the Krays' story is hurried along to make way for more improbable dialogue: the twins' escape from conviction in the Lord Boothby case is a crucial ingredient in their rise to power, but it's treated brusquely by Helgeland's script - a script which, nevertheless, finds enough time for Frances to spout fantasy guff like "Love is a witness... Reggie sees me, and I see him", as if anyone in the history of the universe ever spoke like that.
So Legend ensures the legend remains a legend, and the Krays' reputation as celebrities to be impressed by remains intact, if not stronger, as a result of Helgeland's film. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence out there to restore the balance, but none of it has Tom Hardy in a beautiful tailored wool suit with a knicker-dampening glint in his eye, so which version of events you'd prefer to swallow is up to you. I guess there's room for both; I'm just not sure how happy I am about it.

1 comment :