Legend finds enough ways to distinguish itself as a fantastic gangster film, most notably with two Oscar-worthy performances from Tom Hardy.
With a 1990 film and another one already released this year (Peter Medak’s The Krays and 2015’s The Rise of the Krays respectively), you’d think that there would be very little material left unexplored in the lives of London-born gangsters the Kray twins. As a result, any new attempt to tell the story needs an extra special something to make it worthwhile. Something that elevates it above the previous films, and gives it its own raison d’etre. As could have been predicted, for Brian Helgeland’s Legend, that thing is Tom Hardy.
Portraying both of the brothers, Hardy provides two very different, but equally attention grabbing performances. What’s most surprising though is that, after an initial period of adjusting to it, the novelty of watching Hardy play against himself wears off and you start to feel like you’re watching two different people react to one another. At points it’s quite remarkable that Hardy is able to have such chemistry with himself of all people. Rather than functioning as a distracting gimmick, the two performances benefit the film immensely and it’s legitimately hard to think of any way that two separate actors could have achieved the same results.
The film itself chronicles the rise to power of the twins, whilst more specifically focusing on Reggie, the more well adjusted of the pair. Over the course of the 1950s and 60s, we witness his desperate attempts to control his unstable brother and his blossoming relationship with Frances Shea (Emily Browning), as well as sticking with him through his jail time, and seeing the ins and outs of his criminal organisation.
Legend takes a decidedly more stylish approach than either of its predecessors did, seemingly less concerned with faithfully recreating the past in a docudrama fashion, and more interested in creating a compelling drama and character study. Coupled with this is a darkly comedic tone, which feels more reminiscent of Goodfellas than it does either of the other Kray films. One particular instance is startlingly similar to Scorsese’s mob epic, as Reggie introduces Frances to the criminal underworld, and his club, in a long take, before eventually arriving at a table in front of a stage.
The comedy element of the film walks a fine line, but thankfully never verges into trivializing the real life events. And whilst at first the gangster lifestyle seems heightened and glamorous, by the end things take a much darker turn, and the consequences of the brothers’ actions are felt. So accusations of glamorizing would be mostly unfounded.
The reason for the initial romanticism is because our perspective is focalized throughout by Frances, Reggie’s girlfriend and future wife. Thus we initially see Reggie and his world through her eyes. However as their relationship begins to deteriorate, the rose tinted sheen begins to wear off, and the stark reality of things takes hold. This perspective we’re given is another way that Helgelend’s film manages to distinguish itself, by distancing notions of accuracy and truth, and instead prioritizing emotion and character.
Similar to Goodfellas (tired of hearing that yet?) the film opts to structure itself around a period in the lives of its subjects, rather than on a specific plot point. This could be problematic for some, who might perceive it as a ‘lack of focus’, but really it seems like Helgeland was trying to create the ultimate depiction of events, squeezing as much into the 130 minute run time as possible. One thing that is noticeably skirted around however is the duo’s relationship with their mother. Being the primary focus of the 1990 film, that subject has been exhausted previously, and to great effect. So it was a wise decision to brush it largely to the sidelines here.
The supporting cast all make a good impression, even if some are given very little to do. Browning’s sympathetic Frances is both likable and tragic, and makes for a refreshing source of kindness in an otherwise horrible group of people. The likes of Taron Egerton, Paul Bettany and David Thewlis are all engaging in their own right as well, but of course the spotlight is always on Hardy. Neither of his performances overshadow the other, as they offer very different things. Reggie is a much more natural, ‘realistic’ and understated role, whilst Ron is portrayed in a much more eccentric and larger than life manner, almost as a caricature (complete with exaggerated make up and a Bane esque voice). The conflicting styles never clash however, as both have a place within the film, which bounces between fantastical and grounded itself.
Add to all of this sharp, witty dialogue, great attention to period detail, and vibrant cinematography from Dick Pope, and you have a film that is perhaps not entirely authentic, but is strikingly cinematic and consistently entertaining.
Legend (2015), directed by Brian Helgeland, is distributed in the UK by StudioCanal. Certificate 18.