Films about organised crime, and gangsters, will always be popular – maybe it’s because we love to see how this shady area of our world might work, and what these people were (or are) actually like. Legend shows us the exploits of the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, who are the closest this country got to Al Capone, Meyer Lansky or any of the infamous US criminals. And thanks to the quite frankly, ridiculously good Tom Hardy, this retelling of their story is pretty good.
The Krays (both played by Hardy) are East End gangsters who start moving up the food chain towards total control of the London underworld, and we view their ascent (and descent) through the eyes of Ronnie’s girlfriend Frances (Emily Browning). A host of other characters flesh out the 1960s and the Krays’ move to the top, while policeman “Nipper” Read (Christopher Ecclestone) tries to take the brothers down.
Where other movies have used actual twins to play the brothers, Hardy plays both in a brilliant double performance. This is so good at times that you forget you’re watching the same actor playing both, as the psychopathic, darkly comic Reggie and the suave but violent Ronnie. He has to simultaneously get across both the divide and the unbreakable bond that maps out the twins’ relationship, and somehow he manages to do this so well that you become engrossed in the story, rather than in the novelty.
Hardy’s ability to play tightly-coiled, uncomfortably aggressive characters is shown in a number of violently uncomfortable action and drama scenes, with the unpredictable but tragic Reggie’s paranoia contrasting with Ronnie’s placid yet sharp temper. Reggie’s schizophrenia and generally bizarre personality are accentuated by Hardy’s performance, which reminded me of his role in Bronson – another film about a UK criminal who’s a few apples short of a tree. Ronnie meanwhile is the archetypal cheeky geezer, but again Hardy’s almost made a niche for himself in similar roles, and he manages to distinguish the two characters while also bringing genuine menace.
Browning is one of those actresses who always look about 18, and in a quiet but interesting performance, she gives the viewer a sense of a very young woman who sees an opportunity to escape a dead-end life, only to find herself in another trap. Her narration is annoying at times (aren’t all voiceovers), but this is a filmmaking choice, and she’s great as our window into the mad, mad world of the Krays. Going through the supporting actors in this film could take ages, but David Thewlis, as the Kray’s business “manager” Leslie Payne, plays a knowing and long-suffering role as the man caught between the two.
Paul Anderson, as the twins’ henchman Albert, and Taron Egerton, as Ronnie’s boyfriend “Mad Teddy”, are also great as two men offering very different encouragements for Ronnie and Reggie. I felt Eccleston was a bit short-changed, as he enters and exits the film as and when the plot needs him (when the Krays are in trouble), and he’s really only the stereotypical “driven cop” character here. Other characters standing out include Paul Bettany’s rival mobster (particularly his “mock trial” introduction), and Chazz Palminteri’s seedy US mafia man.
Script and film-wise, director and writer Brian Helgeland (an American) nails the 60s in London, with the film evoking a sense of time and place (thanks to a lot of 60s architecture that’s not been demolished). The script is caustic and particularly crude (for those who aren’t familiar with the British gangster subgenre, this is not a surprise), and while we get a good sense of the two men and their issues, it’s only towards the end that they don’t feel eulogised. Make no mistake, the Krays were violent criminals, but at times Legend (even in the name) seems to make out that they were “cheeky chappies”, with a lot of the humour in the movie accentuating this.
The tone of the movie is, as you’d expect, a bit all over the place. Moments of comedy come even in the most violent moments, with most of the more thoughtful moments coming in the second half of the film. It’s only towards the end that the humour gives way to the stark and bloody reality, which is fitting but at the same time kills the flow of the film. There’s little action, violence or threat throughout, but when it comes it’s harsh, particularly in one scene that shocked me – this was one of those moments where I felt Helgeland wanted the audience to know just how twisted both brothers could be, behind the smiles and the humour.
Musically, there’s an almost cringeworthy main theme that feels like the opening credits to a crappy 70s East End comedy, but the music of the era forces its way through (with musician Duffy playing a club singer), giving the movie some period character. All in all, I was impressed by the film despite its flaws, but more than anything else this is some achievement by Tom Hardy. He’s an exciting actor at the best of times, but playing two separate characters he manages to be better than some actors with one role.