Director: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Tom Hardy; Emily Browning
Plot: A look at the life of the Kray twins from the perspective of Reggie’s wife Frances during the peak of their lives in 1960s London.
The last gangster biopic I saw was Goodfellas. There’s just something about glamorizing real-life gangsters that I find uncomfortable, yet Goodfellas happens to be one of my all time favourite films. Legend is a film that’s closer to being an awkwardly funny Guy Ritchie film than it is a gritty gangster biopic. I went into the cinema expecting a somewhat gritty account of the Kray twins, two of the most notorious and feared gangsters in the history of Britain, but instead witnessed a relatively light-hearted and comedic movie. Now, that’s not necessarily the recipe for a bad film, but going back to what I said at the start… this movie and the glamorized events within it are all based from things that have happened in real-life, so you may feel a bit awkward when you find yourself giggling at a man being stabbed to death.
The film capitalised on Ronnie Kray’s (Hardy) somewhat ‘colourful’ character to help give the film this comedic tone; exaggerating his bisexual tendencies and mental stability to turn him into the punch-line of several of the film’s scenes, while his twin brother Reggie (also Hardy) was the designated ‘fixer-upper’. Hardy’s performance of Ronnie Kray at times seemed a bit overdone to the point where it was unintentionally, as well intentionally, funny. Even so, it’s fair to say Hardy did deliver a stand-out performance as both Kray twins, expertly crafting each brother with both subtle and strong differences to create a convincing portrayal of two different, yet similar characters. While a lot of credit should go to Hardy for nailing the Krays’ mannerisms and appearance, credit must go to the make-up and effects teams too, for they did a sublime job of doubling Hardy and making him so visually similar to the Krays; only on a few occasions was it noticeable that one of his faces was ‘off”.
The portrayal of Frances Shea by Emily Browning was done superbly. Her character was somewhat of a saving grace for the film as she was the only character that came close to making the film seem gritty and tense. Frances generates a lot of sympathy, as director Brian Helgeland positions the film from her perspective and her feelings towards the Krays, specifically her husband Reggie, which comes across as a labour of love. Frances’ love for Reggie slowly decays through the film, but she still manages to stay with him, hoping that one day they will both be free of her husband’s violent lifestyle. Browning does an outstanding job of capturing her character’s feelings and struggles, but does not get quite enough screen time to fully develop them, which can leave you feeling that there was still more of the character left to explore and perhaps more reasoning for the decay in her relationship with Reggie.
Legend has done a fantastic job of capturing the sixties atmosphere with a well-devised soundtrack. The inclusion of Carter Burwell, who had previously worked on great atmospheric movies such as No Country for Old Men (2007) as a composer is a choice that doesn’t go unnoticed. The inclusion of artists such as The Rockin’ Berries and the Dixie Cups on the soundtrack really help give the film a strong sixties ambiance too; Burwell shows just how vital a soundtrack can be to a film in this case.
What the film has in sound, it lacks in visuals. While the soundtrack captures a strong sixties ambiance, the visuals struggle to create a convincing portrayal of a gritty 1960s London. At times the visuals came across a bit too glossy and colourful, which produced quite a glamorous and warm tone. While this suited the film’s portrayal of the Krays as the Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin of London, and London as the ‘Las Vegas of Europe’, it still lacked the gritty London gangster feel you’d expect from a British gangster film, even if that film is a comedy. This lack of grittiness took its toll on the narrative as very rarely did you feel the Krays were genuinely in trouble, and whilst the film emphasises the idea that the Kray’s were ‘untouchable’, it was unconvincing in moments that threatened this ideal.
The film has a lot in common with Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), a film that took a comedic approach in capturing London’s gang violence. However, Ritchie’s film maintained an an intense and gritty style to it, something Legend failed at. In truth, it’s really hard to establish whether or not you should be laughing during particular moments in Legend, whereas with Lock Stock, you know it’s being intentionally funny; it’s okay to laugh. If you’ve seen Goodfellas (1990), another gangster biopic, you will know the infamous scene where Tommy (Joe Pesci) repeatedly asks Henry (Ray Liotta) If he thinks he’s funny. That particular scene is an excellent way of describing Legend.
Overall Helgeland has done a superb job in creating a highly entertaining and different approach to a British Gangster film and Hardy continues to show that he’s one of the top actors of his generation with another captivating and wonderful performance. The film also really captures a strong sixties vibe, but it fails to synchronise it with a gritty visual or narrative style. My tip is this: don’t watch Legend expecting to see a gritty gangster film; go with an open mind and you will enjoy it for what it is. And remember, you may find yourself feeling guilty when you’re laughing at some of the scenes, especially when you remember that some of this really did happen.