Paul Whitington reviews Tom Hardy's new crime flick, Legend.
The opening scene of Brian Helgeland's febrile crime drama Legend is easily the best thing about it. Reggie Kray (Tom Hardy) emerges from his mother's council house into the bright sunshine of an East End morning and swaggers down the narrow street in a spanky suit, smiling, waving and shaking hands with passers-by as though he's a politician, or a visiting potentate. Watching him from a shabby car is a squinting copper, Nipper Read (Christopher Eccleston), who's enraged by Reggie's sang froid and dreams of one day nicking him.
It's a lovely moment, promising many memorable moments to come, which sadly do not materialise because while entertaining in a silly sort of way, Legend is a flippant and cartoonish film that never really overcomes a fatal flaw in its construction. That would be the decision to tell the Kray twins' story from the point of view of Reggie's one-time wife and girlfriend, Frances Shea. Played rather bloodlessly by Emily Browning, Frances introduces our protagonists in a wordy voice-over which returns at regular intervals to interrupt the story and shatter our suspended disbelief. Though there are exceptions (Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity), the voice-over is a cumbersome device that almost never works - but that's not Legend's only problem.
Though one feels for her of course (I mean, who'd want to be married to a Kray), Frances is a frustratingly passive victim who wanders around like a mournful ghost and keeps getting in the way of the fighting. For all its flashy style, Legend remains a frustratingly superficial affair, and never really tries to tell us why the Krays were so singularly vicious and unpleasant.
Like all the silly books and films that have been made about the hoodlum siblings, it doesn't really know whether to love or loathe them, and ends up with a fudged compromise of apologetic admiration. And then there's the needless gimmick of asking the same actor to play both of them. With a helpful touch of digital magic, Hardy is the brothers Kray: Reggie, the charismatic charmer who thinks big and reckons they can take over London; Ronnie, the homosexual lunatic who's likely to fly into a violent rage at any moment. Reggie's no saint either, and in the early 1960s the brothers made a name for themselves by becoming the leading East End crime gang.
By the time we meet them they're already cock of the walk, in the middle of a nasty gang war with Charlie Richardson (Paul Bettany in wonderfully fruity form) and his gang, and about to get their hands on a Knightsbridge club that will give them access to London's social elite. Reggie has enough swagger to schmooze the rich and famous, and even dreams of going straight, but when Ronnie decides to walk into a crowded pub and shoot dead one of the Richardson gang, respectability seems unlikely.
I've never understood the tabloid fascination with the Kray boys: they were a pair of ultra-violent hooligans who provided swinging 60s celebrities with the frisson of mixing with mobsters. They were pretty average criminals, unremarkable in most respects, but it might have been interesting to find out why they had such a propensity towards violence. Legend doesn't go there, and their hard-nut mother is presented as a harmless, tea-swilling biddy.
We learn little or nothing new, and though Hardy does a decent job of conveying Reggie's ballsy charm, his Ronnie is a risible caricature with bulging eyes and a ludicrous voice and fists permanently clenched with rage. It's not his fault: if different actors had played the two Krays, the one cast as Ronnie would have been free to create a nuanced character rather than a mere monster. But Hardy is under pressure to make his two characters look and seem convincingly different. He succeeds, to the detriment of Brian Helgeland's film.