“Tom Hardy creates two distinct, extremely watchable characters” Legend review

The story of the Kray twins is oddly pitched but it's also a great showcase for its leading man

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★★★

With a title boldly advertising the pedestal on which it places its subjects, Legend is less a dissection or authentic re-creation of the life of the Kray twins, more a shameless celebration. American writer/director Brian Helgeland’s fifth feature casts Tom Hardy as both Ronnie and Reggie – quite the selling point, as well as being a fitting and intriguing challenge for this audacious actor. However, the resulting film is cartoonish rather than credible. 

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Based on John Pearson’s biography, The Profession of Violence: the Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins, it’s the story of the boys from Bethnal Green who loomed large over London’s gangland in the 1950s and 60s, when they weren’t being photographed by David Bailey, or mingling with stars like Diana Dors and Frank Sinatra. Picking up their story in the late 50s, with Ronnie initially institutionalised, Legend spans the decade that hosted their ascent to the top, achieved through effectively applied menaces and international connections (the latter represented by Chazz Palminteri’s Angelo Bruno), and stopping just short of their career-ending incarceration.

Legend takes a different tack from Peter Medak’s 1990 biopic that made much of the boys’ relationship with their mother. In that film, BAFTA-nominated Billie Whitelaw played Violet Kray, whereas here the character barely registers. Instead, the film fashions the brothers’ reign of terror into a battle for Reggie’s soul between the wife that wants him “free and above board” and the unstable brother who’s loathe to lose his partner in crime. 

Reggie’s missus Frances (Emily Browning) narrates and we see her “gangster prince” through her goo-goo eyes – all dapper threads, easy charm and swagger. Reggie is shown as the brains of the criminal enterprise – ambitious, strategic and keen to cultivate an air of legitimacy, which he attempts while contending with the seesawing emotions of the paranoid schizophrenic Ronnie, and the unwanted attention of their police nemesis “Nipper” Read (Christopher Eccleston), who’s determined to put the brothers away.

The movie’s luscious cinematography comes courtesy of double Oscar-nominee Dick Pope (The Illusionist, Mr Turner) but the shiny, happy handling seems off – it’s part romanticisation, part gangster comedy. Helgeland doesn’t shy away from the violence but he does present it strangely, withholding its impact until the final act. It’s an approach that, given the true-life origins, seems borderline deranged, and certainly disrespectful, but that never quite makes the jump into parody, with the film lacking the exuberance to pull off moments of bad taste, and the intelligence or curiosity to offer insight into these admittedly fascinating men. The screenplay, too, particularly the narration, frequently flirts with Martina Cole-esque crime clichés and clunky pronouncements (“the Queen would survive but God save the rest of us”); a sharper script might just have made the askew approach pop. 

Still, Hardy creates two distinct, extremely watchable characters, although the relationship between them is somewhat lost in the trickery. His characterful, frequently humorous delivery in the role of Ronnie, and the bounteous charisma he brings to Reggie means there’s much to enjoy, and the technical challenge of bringing his two performances simultaneously to screen is largely well achieved. Helgeland also adds an interesting dimension by foregrounding Ronnie’s sexual relationships with men, while the near-epic length is easily worn and it’s well cast throughout, with up-and-comer Taron Egerton (Kingsman) impressing, Browning bringing some welcome sensitivity and solid support delivered by Eccleston, Colin Morgan, Sam Spruell, Paul Bettany and David Thewlis.

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An entertaining showcase for its versatile leading man, this oddly but defiantly upbeat film seldom fails to fascinate, even when it’s for the wrong reasons.