There has often been a tendency to muddy the waters between fame and infamy when it comes to the criminal underworld. The gangster genre itself is perhaps one of the most influential in cinema with the role of the anti-hero taking on great significance in each of these productions.
In much the same way this somewhat macabre tendency to make celebrity’s out of murderers and villains perhaps explains the lure that the Kray Twins – Ronald & Reginald - still hold over the British Isles even now, almost 50 years since their reign of terror ended.
Seeking to document the lives of these two nefarious leaders of ‘The Firm’, director Brian Helgeland jettisons his usual writing duties (credits include LA Confidential and Mystic River) to take the rein’s here and places what is – in Tom Hardy – perhaps Britain’s most intense, formidable actor at the very centre of the production.
In what is from the start an intriguing move to have the same actor play both parts through the use of camera trickery and ingenious use of body-doubles, Legend is not only one of the most original films of the year but also one of the most masculine. This is a ‘Friday night with the lads and a few beers’ movie that will quite quickly become a cult classic but a deeper look beyond the bravado and chest-puffing action reveals a deeply emotive and psychological drama that is every bit as impressive as it’s leading man’s performance.
The main takeaway from Legend is that Hardy is absolutely phenomenal, plain and simply one of the best acting performances that has ever been committed to screen. He carries the weight of the movie so comfortably that it is easy to see why Helgeland has based almost 90% of his script around him in one guise or another. The complex range that Hardy brings to both of these very different roles is simply astounding – this is an actor who is making his claim to be considered the finest British export into the movie world since Daniel Day-Lewis in the late 80s.
To contrast these roles as a simple Jekyll and Hyde between the monstrous, unhinged Ron and the steely, cerebral Reg is to do Hardy an immense dis-service as he not only manages to display such a broad stroke of emotions between the two brothers themselves but also manages to add layers of nuanced subtlety to each individual and totally convince in every aspect. For all of Ron’s snarling, vicious posturing, Hardy also manages to convey an element of child-like vulnerability – a simple man who is suffering from mental illness and it is hard not to feel sympathy for him despite his psychotic, destructive behaviour which is all credit to the spectacular acting performance that has gone into creating him.
Likewise, Reg is depicted as a cool, intelligent and semi-respectable man – in his own words “not a gangster” - but as soon as his crown starts to slip we are presented with a man as violent and unflinching as his brother with arguably even less remorse. Hardy’s greatest achievement here is to not only convincingly portray the differences and subtleties between the brothers themselves but also to display the conflict and idiosyncrasies that exist within each individual.
Hardy’s Ron is a character for the ages as he appears as a man on the verge of madness – much being made on the factual evidence that Ron was clinically insane - an almost man-child at times both terrifying and laugh out loud funny. It is these many comedic moments that draw parallels with Hardy’s other look at a notorious British criminal in 2008’s Bronson – and at times makes Legend feel more like a black comedy than a hardened look at London’s gangland culture.
Despite the moments of mirth however there is always the fear of simmering violence and destruction in Hardy’s dead, vacant eyes and alluded to the slow, almost mumbling, drawl this adds upto one of the most memorable characters that has been committed to screen in years.
However, as good as the performance is that has gone into constructing Ron, Hardy is absolutely magnetic as Reg - oozing with layers of charm and suave sophistication making it far less baffling to see just why women find this type of dangerous criminal so appealing and even more importantly why the brothers themselves are still so highly regarded in the West End haunts that they used to terrorise.
Hardy has recently been linked to the role of James Bond and on this type of evidence it is not hard to see why, he turns Reg from common street thug into a 007-like charm machine that in equal measure seems to fullfill the old maxim of having women want to be with him and men want to be like him and if that wasn’t quite enough he also manages to carry the emotional heart of the film in his two very different relationships with his brother and his wife Frances.
As the aforementioned Frances, Emily Browning is about the only supporting player that manages to grab attention from Hardy’s towering performance. Whilst ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ performances from British heavy-weights such as Christopher Eccleston and David Thewliss are a little disappointing, the young Australian delivers a vulnerable, sweet performance which not only gives the impression of a youth and innocence lost to a violent world but also makes it clear to see how a powerful, masculine man could have had his head and heart stolen away by her so easily.
Such is the presence of the twins themselves it is hard for any other aspect of Legend to stand-out in the same way but the cinematography and camera-work is every bit as impressive as it’s leading man and it will prove some challenge to anyone who can see the join in the production. Hardy not only occupies scenes with himself but also interacts, touches and – in one truly memorable sequence – fights himself relentlessly.
The performances by Hardy are so immersive and the technical expertise so fluent that at times you really will have to remind yourself that you are watching one actor play both roles here and not simply seeing the finest pair of acting twins that have ever existed.
Added to this is the extremely impressive production values that contain dazzling costume and stunning set decoration which – when added to what is a brilliant 60s soundtrack featuring the likes of Herman’s Hermits and the Yardbirds - creates a heavy nostalgia to what is already a riveting recreation of the famous London West End. The opulence and excitement of the Swinging 60’s oozes from every frame and gives Legend a stunning visual flare that only enhances it’s appeal.
For the avid cineastes in the audience, the influence of Goodfellas is both obvious and ubiquitous from the smart, snappy suits and the glamourised colour of the gangster world right down to the blatant homage of Scorsese’s famous tracking-shot entry into the Copacabana Club as Reggie escorts his new beau Frances into the lush surroundings of the Kray’s Double R Club. They say imitation is the highest form of flattery and it is no bad thing to follow the blue-print of one of the genre’s staple pieces.
To call Legend a purely visual film however, would be to ignore the deeper themes that are so excellently knitted together beneath the stunning visual world that Helgeland has woaven together. There is a truly powerful central concept underpinning this entire narrative that is in danger of being lost to all the glitz and glamour that is prevalent in it’s appearance. The notion of losing yourself in loyalty to someone else is the film’s driving force.
“Where do they end and you begin?” is often a question posed of any sufferer of co-dependancy - and in this case it is a fascinating insight into Reggie’s character which just about makes him the more appealing character.
Whilst Ron is a scenery-chewing, scene-stealing whirlwind – in much the same way as many of Joe Pesci’s famous gangster characters have been – it is Reg that provides us with the emotional grounding and inner turmoil that acts as the films heart.
This is a man so devoted to his brother and the family-ties that bind them he actually loses everything else around him. “My loyalty to my brother is how I measure myself” explains Reg in a succinct appraisal of the power struggle that envelopes both of these very different – yet very similar – men.
Reg is primarily portrayed here as a sympathetic – almost martyr-like - character who is often held back by the attachment and devotion that he feels for his sibling – it is certainly a brave and fresh take which runs the risk of glamorising a murderer and a criminal but then the same can be said of any movie in the gangster genre. By their very nature these men are anti-heroes but it is undeniable that they hold an appeal and it is this appeal that Hardy harnesses to deliver what is quite easily the best acting performance of his career – particularly when it comes to the more complex of the twins in Reg.
Despite the numerous positive aspects of Legend, this is Hardy’s film and his presence towers over the entire piece in much the same way as the twins themselves did over the nations Capital. He exudes a powerful - at times blinding - screen presence in every frame he appears and absolutely transcends the entire production. There aren’t many acting performances like this these days and Hardy must have been rubbing his hands whilst reading the script – surely an Oscar nomination will be on the horizon in the new year.
“Me and my brother – we’re gonna rule London” a confident Ron tells Frances in one scene. By playing both of these brothers with such astonishing depth and range Hardy has all but confirmed he’ll be doing the same in Hollywood.