Many gangster movies have come before that have been considered great, The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Untouchables, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and all of these have depicted the highs and lows of the lifestyle. Where Legend differs, by utilising its lead to play both main characters, by taking an American spin on the British crime landscape and by using its female protagonist as the point of view is where it really shines and makes its mark.
In 1960’s London the most notorious gangsters were Reggie and Ronnie Kray (Tom Hardy portrays both), using their fraud, exploitation, money laundering and intimidation tactics they moved up from the East End, took on their competing South End gangster Charlie Richardson (Paul Bettany who’s only onscreen for less than 5 minutes) and his crew and were soon ruling all of London. Consolidating their power and working with the American Mafia, they buy up nightclubs and are soon not only notorious but infamous as they rub shoulders with the rich, famous and the British Establishment. In amongst all of this Reggie meets Frances “Frankie” Shea (Emily Browning) and falls in love, promising her he’ll go straight but he’s torn between his love for her and loyalty for his mentally unstable brother who is entrenched in the gangster lifestyle.
Their reign seems unshakeable but a combination of a lengthy police investigation lead by Inspector ‘Nipper’ Read (Christopher Eccleston) teamed with Ronnie’s paranoid and violent tendencies that leads him to the cold-blooded murder of George Cornell as well as the disintegration of Reggie and Frankie’s marriage leads to disastrous and tragic consequences that brings an end to the Kray Brothers empire.
Director and writer Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) along with producer Tim Bevan (Fargo) has written the screenplay based off the John Pearson book The Profession of Violence as the foundation for the story about real life twin brother gangsters the Krays. However Helgeland has opted for a different and unique take on a difficult and complex story with a lot of lies and myth surrounding the Kray brothers. It’s the soul of an Americanised gangster film with the heart and life of 1960’s London coursing through it. Portraying the Krays as kids from the poor part of town who took the only route available, a life of crime as a means to a better life. As somebody who was unfamiliar with the Krays or their story (they’re apparently notorious in England) I found this film riveting from the outset right through to the conclusion.
Australia’s own Emily Browning as Frances “Frankie” Shea plays Reggie’s love interest and eventually wife, in reality little is known about her or revealed but here she plays our narrator for almost the entire duration of the film. Guiding us through the story, even though she’s an outsider to the gangland world at the same time she never denies knowing who or what the Krays are and willingly becomes associated with them. An interesting take since normally we see things from the protagonist’s perspective but Browning brings an accessibility for us to her character and thus into the world of the Krays.
But this movie is completely and utterly owned by Tom Hardy, who is a powerhouse and literally carries double the weight of this film portraying both Ronnie and Reggie Kray. You don’t see the individual actor but these two significantly different brothers bound together by their compulsive love and loyalty to each other. Reggie is ridiculously charming, a bit of a scoundrel with swagger like Steve McQueen and the brains behind the Kray brothers operations. Ronnie is an open homosexual with quirky charisma, awkward body language but under all of that is a seething hulking mass of rage barely being tamed by his older twin, clearly he’s the muscle. The contrast between the two, Reggie is more like a lad while Ronnie the brute doesn’t diminish the violence or fear that they instilled.
Helgeland used a number of different techniques including having Hardy do his scenes in one character in the morning, and the other in the afternoon. Or by using Hardy’s stunt double to fill in or with good old fashion blocking of shots but the key was having Hardy be able to have his dialogue overlap to add to that believability. The bar fight with the Richardson gang, or the physical brawl between the two Krays are both particularly hilarious to watch. Whatever the technique it’s all completely convincing, these are two very different characters and Hardy brings both of them to life.
Production designer Tom Conroy adds to this realism by using over 100 different sets and on-location shoots, an indication of the size of the Kray’s hold on London. As well as Caroline Harris’ suave costume design, with the Krays and their crew dressed in sharp suits to look their finest whenever they went out on the town. And to add to the swinging 1960’s vibe the film grooves to a wonderful soundtrack, featuring Duffy as one of the singers performing in the Kray’s club, as well as songs by The Meters, The Ramsey Lewis Trio, and Santo and Johnny, all of which complements the score by composer Carter Burwell. The supporting cast revolving around our leads are probably the only thing that we don’t get exposed enough to, Christopher Eccleston, Paul Bettany and Colin Morgan as Frances’ brother Frank are both sorely under-used, while Taron Egerton as Mad Teddy Smith, Ronnie’s loose cannon gay lover really gets to camp it up in some scenes. But almost all the cast pale in the shadows to Hardy who commands the screen and dominates the time.
Even though it goes for a little over 2 hours it never feels long or tedious, the story unfolds at a pace that keeps it intriguing and engaging. Whether you’re familiar with the Kray Brothers or not, the narrative and how it’s driven makes for a compelling film. Hardy and Browning make a fascinating and complex threesome to watch onscreen and their performance is quite engrossing. In viewing this film through Frances’ viewpoint these larger than life characters really do become legendary.
Review Score: FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 131 minutes
Legend is released in Australian cinemas from 15 October 2015 through Studio Canal