‘Legend‘ (Brian Helgeland 2015) is successful on many levels. Go and see it. But leave any preconceptions at home. That’s a caveat that maybe assumes too much, I know, but the story of the Kray twins has been told many times and has been subsumed into popular culture in ways that could colour your thinking on what you’re about to see. So forget the Pythons’ Reg and Dinsdale Pirhana stuff , Big Vern from Viz and the Kemps as the twins in Peter Medak’s 1990 movie. Forget, also, other movies about twins. So, yeah, forget Jeremy Irons and Hayley Mills. The people who made this movie are way ahead of you.
Director/scriptwriter, Brian Helgeland, has taken the myth of the Kray twins – a myth first imagined by the twins themselves and planished over the next 50 years by celebrities, the media, you and me – and placed his protagonists inside that myth. All the better to tell their story. And who better to tell that story than Frances Shea – Reggie’s dead wife – telling us from beyond the grave as the movie opens; ‘London in the 1960s, everyone had a story about the Krays. They were twins. Reggie was a gangster prince of the East End, Ronnie Kray was a one-man mob.’ And so the myth begins.
The expedient thing about narrating a myth is that the characters can arrive fully formed at any point along the time line. No need for an organic exposition about why or how they are who they are. They just are. And so it is here. We meet the parents briefly; older brother Charlie hardly merits a mention. But we get to see much of the milieu – the rival Richardson gang, the violence, the clubs, the pubs and the celebrities who lubricated the myth – gave it traction. And the eerie brotherly love. There’s a lot of that. There’s also some manipulation of the idea that Reggie was the ‘good’ evil twin and Ron was the ‘bad’ evil twin. Helgeland lets that theme play out as the myth unfolds. Reggie courting Frances; Reggie tolerating Ron’s excesses. Reggie smiling benignly at his mother, Violet. But as the myth crumbles near to the story’s conclusion, the fact of both men’s psychopathy is frighteningly real because such people are fearless. Not courageous. Fearless. Ron shooting a rival gangster in a pub; The twins fighting each other in a fevered frenzy; Reggie killing an errant henchman at a party, Frances committing suicide. Nothing you could associate with a Robin Hood.
Tom Hardy invests both men with distinct behaviours and characteristics. Necessary for narrative purposes, yes – but as the myth shatters, the atoms collide and his genius is in revealing that outcome. When we first meet Ronald Kray, he has the same horrific/comedic demeanour that Ralph Fiennes lent to his portrayal of Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. There’s something of Peter Cook’s Clive in the voice, the delivery. Similarly, Reggie Kray, he informs with the charisma of a Ben Siegel, as played by Warren Beatty in Bugsy. But as the conclusion draws near, the twins are truly indistinguishable. Their domination, their violence, their indifference to all else other than ‘ruling London’ has made them a single entity. And that entity has sucked the life, the energy, any decency from anything and anyone around it. We feel that – and our exhaustion at the end is a very perverse triumph for Hardy and his director.
I must also give credit to Emily Browning as Frances Shea. Her detailed portrayal of the vulnerable Frances lends authenticity to the time and place of the Kray’s story. She perfectly evokes the look and mood of the East End in the mid 60s. There’s something of Sandie Shaw about her. I half expected her to burst into ‘There’s Always Something There To Remind Me’ at any moment.
‘Legend’ is, for the most part, a fine movie containing a compelling, brilliant central performance by Tom Hardy. My principal reservation is that Helgeland’s script too often wants to tell us rather than show us and maybe he needs to develop a little more trust in his audience. That aside, this is a convincing and involving retelling and outing of the Kray myth.