“I’m not good, I’m a good gangster” – Ronnie Kray
Based on the true story of gangster twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray, who took over London in the 1960’s, Legend brought something a little different to your classic British crime thriller– the idea of weakness.
Legend is an exploration into the side we don’t see in the hyper masculine Guy Ritchie films – the vulnerabilities and hardships of being a gangster. Something I found particularly interesting about the writing is how Ronnie Kray (played by Tom Hardy) made his homosexuality common knowledge, something that would have been taboo in the 1960’s, when the film was set, and certainly within the genre of the British crime thriller. It was this characters openness which also provided much of the comic relief throughout the film, and it was always the audience laughing with Ronnie and his exploits, rather than at him.
The character of Reggie Kray (also played by Hardy) was a slightly less interesting affair, with the show being stolen by his twin, which if the film is even slightly true to life, was surely the case. The story of Reggie was based around his relationships, with his brother, friends, and his wife Francis (Emily Browning). Whilst on the outside he appeared to be perfect – charming, tough, organised, the reality was that he spent so long wearing a mask that he forgot to look after the ones who could see behind it, leaving him lonely and destined for rock bottom. Francis, Reggie’s first wife, was played brilliantly by Browning as she captured the fragile and timid woman who clung to The Krays to escape a life she hated, and more importantly to be protected from the world that had hurt her in the past. This is the best piece of acting I have seen from her in recent years, with her track record for films being more than a little patchy.
Hardy’s performance was interesting, and I (and many other viewers) greatly preferred his acting as Ronnie Kray, as it allowed for more expression and opportunities to tell a story. The differences in physicality between Hardy’s two characters was outstanding (with a little help from prosthetics), Reggie – a healthy and dapper man, Ronnie – a pale, looming figure. Hardy is consistently proving himself to be a versatile actor, and there is no bigger challenge than to star alongside yourself, any claims of Hardy being a ‘one trick pony’ are clearly disproven here. Had it not been the reality in the 1960’s, I could see Michael Caine having played this role in his heyday in much the same way.
Brian Helgeland, the writer and director of Legend, is incredibly familiar with the crime and thriller genres, explaining why there are so many generic conventions packed into 131 minutes. And its interesting to see his directorial choices move away from comedy (A Knights Tale ,2001) towards a need to tell true stories, his film before Legend being 42 (2013) , the story of Jackie Robinson – who broke the colour barrier within major league baseball. It will be interesting to see where Helgeland goes next, and whether he continues with his fondness for crime stories.
There was clearly a high budget for this UK production, with the mise en scene being as accurate as possible, through props, costume, and set. The filmmaking itself was incredibly conventional, often mimicking the style of other British films like Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. The editing within the film is an impressive feat, as a large portion of the shots required the use of split screen, so it appeared as both Krays were on screen at the same time. The sound production was clear, the mumbling of Ronnie only adding to the character’s strangeness, and the soundtrack gave a real sense of the time and place the film was set.
Overall, I would have been more engaged by a film based around Ronnie, and his ascent through the prison and mental health systems and his adjustment to the real world, and the world he wanted to be in. To know the full depths of the infamous gangster, rather than to have him as a device for comedy and violence (although it was enjoyable, the Reggie and Francis love story took the majority of the viewers attention). However, the film did bring something new to the British crime thriller, and I think recognising the weakness of characters might take some of the “fun” out of this style of film, but its important to make the audience remember – Gangsters are people too.