If Ronnie and Reggie Kray were still knocking about today you can’t help but think they’d be quite chuffed with their latest cinematic adaptation, Legend. There’s an early scene in the film where Reggie Kray (Tom Hardy) jovially schmoozes through his nightclub, acting the perfect gentleman, before nipping round the back and callously smacking an associate who’s stepped out of line. This one moment perfectly epitomises both the Krays’ longing to balance glamour and violence, but also director Brian Helgeland’s desire to promote this toxic mix. Helgeland buys into the long held obsessive admiration with the infamous twin gangsters and as a result presents them in a more than favourable light. Legend’s Krays aren’t psychopathic criminals; they’re showmen of the highest order, which is exactly how they’d like to be remembered.
Legend is exactly how it sounds. The film perpetuates the image of the Krays, Ronnie and Reggie as larger than life personas in every sense of their being. If it weren’t for the fact they existed you’d be excused for thinking the duo were an absurd gangland creation of Guy Ritchie’s realm. Legend joins the Krays in their pomp as undisputed gang lords of the 1960s East End. We never see the Krays’ hard graft to becoming feared gangsters, nor do we see their swift demise. Helgeland skimps over the bookends of their life and as a result never threatens to depict the brothers as weak, fallible or human. It’s a film about myth building but in the process falls under the Krays’ siren song spell and can’t help but believe the legend rather than the fact.
Helgeland builds this vision around a nostalgic, sepia laced, depiction of London’s East End. There’s a warm glow around the film with bright and bold colours illuminating the schmaltzy club interiors as much as the quiet cobbled streets. There are no gritty edges in this reimagined London, in fact at one point where Ronnie (Tom Hardy) is living in a caravan in the woods the sun light is so incandescent that you’d be excused for thinking we’d landed in a fairy tale. It’s the sort of the idolised world that you’d imagine people speak of when they regale romances about the good ol’ days.
This misty eyed East End is supported by a stellar soundtrack of 60s classics from the likes of Booker T & the MGs, The High Numbers, The Righteous Brothers and Timi Yuro, who appears played by forgotten popstar Duffy. Futhermore, veteran cinematographer Dick Pope takes us right into the heart of the Kray’s world through some long tracking shots reminiscent of Boogie Night’s famous opening take. Legend is an immersive experience, it’s all about transporting audiences to a different place which it certainly succeeds in doing even if it is at the expense of realism.
For all Helgeland’s work to create a memorable setting and atmosphere, ultimately it’s Tom Hardy’s leading performance which Legend lives and dies by. An actor playing multiple roles in the same film isn’t a novel concept, and more often than not it’s a tad gimmicky, however Hardy excels under the doubled pressure. While a few superficial touches differentiate Ronnie and Reggie it’s Hardy’s versatility that makes sure the twins are entirely separate entities that stand on their own two feet.
Reggie, the saner of the two, grapples with his contrasting responsibility of being a charming East End club owner and a ruthless criminal. Hardy’s natural charm exudes from Reggie as he seamlessly lapses between affability and anger. It’s also Reggie who carries the burden of an emotional narrative on his shoulders, namely in the form of his relationship with Frances Shea (Emily Browning). Her eerie omnipresent narration gives the story the outsider view it needs in order to stop the Krays’ world from running riot.
Reggie’s not so polar opposite number is Ronnie. Hardy channels his prior role as Britain’s most dangerous prisoner, Charles Bronson, to build Ronnie as wholly eccentric and unhinged. The film’s script depicts Ronnie as the film’s major source of humour, utilising his open homosexuality and mental instability to great comic effect. Some of the film’s greatest moments come courtesy of Hardy’s work as Ronnie, notably the infamous run in with George Cornell (Shane Attwooll) in the Blind Beggar and his bizarre outbursts about Greek mythology and his taste in men.
After the initial novelty of seeing Hardy as both Ronnie and Reggie side by side, Legend continues under the illusion that the twins are played by completely different actors. Hardy’s performance is so good that you don’t even blink an eye when the seemingly impossible occurs and the actor brawls with himself, it’s a good trick if you can do it.
Legend has an impressive supporting cast of British actors; Paul Bettany, Christopher Eccleston, Emily Browning, and David Thewlis, however Hardy’s Krays dominate every aspect of the screen. Frances and Reggie’s love story, which is a major strand, never really has the legs to carry the film’s running time. It’s a unique angle to tackle the Krays but it’s one that ends up playing second fiddle to Ronnie’s increasingly manic behaviour.
Anyone looking for a stern examination of the Krays and their criminal antics will be sorely disappointed with Legend. The film doesn’t concern itself with judgement or truth, instead it enforces and revels in the Krays’ large than life legacy. More than anything, Legend is fun. It’s odd to be talking about murderous gangsters, ones rooted in reality, as fun, but there’s a lot of action, laughs and entertainment to be found in their story. The Krays always longed for national fame and with Legend their legacy as unorthodox national treasures is only cemented.
7/10 – Krazy Fun