There are quite a few people who don’t like the glamorisation (almost fetishisation) or The Krays and London’s East End gangsters of the 1960s, feeling these were nasty, vicious men and should be treated as such. If they were hoping this new biopic of the Kray twins would burst their legend, the title should have given them a hint that it wouldn’t (although it does also suggest the film knows it’s helping cement a fantasy of their lives).
Tom Hardy plays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, with the movie picking up after the twins have already started making their name as gangsters, running nightclubs and operating an expanding protection racket. The film follows their continuing rise and fall, framed by Reggie’s romance and marriage to Frances O’Shea (Emily Browning). While their growing notoriety and the edge of glamour ensures they have the sort of high connections that gives them a certain amount of protection – and perhaps a sense of invulnerability – it also makes them bigger targets for those who would like to bring them down.
Here Reggie is presented as a suave, charming, cheeky chappie ladies’ man, while Ronnie is a clinically insane and slightly dim loose cannon, who’s only ever one step from going rogue and ruining everything. While having the same person playing both parts could have easily been distracting, thanks to the way it’s filmed and excellent performances from Hardy in both roles it works extremely well. There are a couple of moments where it goes too far and you’re suddenly aware of the technical trickery involved, but most of the time you simply forget. That’s helped by Hardy ensuring his dual characters genuinely look and act like twins – Ronnie even looks bigger than Reggie.
Similarly, Emily Browning is extremely good as Frances. It could easily have been a bit of a thankless role where she was little more than a cipher for the Krays, but Browning really brings her to life and adds some much needed pathos to proceedings.
What’s less successful however is the film’s attempts to negotiate the fact that its lead characters are essentially criminal thugs. Although it tries to follow the well-worn path of showing the good before revealing the nastier, more brutal and unpleasant side of the characters, it constantly feels like it’s apologising for them. No matter what they do or what happens, the film never really wants it to be their fault. It doesn’t quite work though as no matter how much it tries to skate over it, you can’t escape the fact that they were not nice people.
That said, for much of the movie you could be forgiven for thinking they hardly did anything wrong, and even when they did they should be hailed as heroes for standing against even worse gangsters on one side and a corrupt establishment on the other. However, it does this by largely ignoring the nastier side of the criminality they were involved in, and that it wasn’t all about swanning around in nightclubs and only breaking the law when they absolutely had to (or when Ronnie was having a bad day).
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Legend though is how funny it is, to the point that if someone described it as a comedy, I couldn’t really disagree with them. Indeed, when Legend is finding humour in the story is when it’s at its best, such as a great scene where the issues between the twins reach a head and they have a massive fight, which is played as much for laughs as drama. It’s also worth noting with that scene that, as mentioned above, you don’t spend the entire thing thinking that you’re watching a technically complex ballet of motion control cameras and special effects allow Tom Hardy to beat himself up, it’s just two people fighting.
It has to be said though that the film has a slightly odd relationship to Ronnie’s sexuality, as while he’s unusually open about being homosexual for the 1960s and always has good looking young guys around, there’s still the feeling that the film treats being gay/bisexual (Reggie himself said he was both at different points in his life) is something you say rather than do – other than a scene where he’s watching porn and spanking someone with a paddle, but he doesn’t actually seem that interested in it. However, it does allow the movie to bring in Taron Egerton as Eddie, who goes from being Reggie’s boy toy to one of his key lieutenants. It may not be a massive role but Egerton is great and provides a couple of the funniest moments.
Legend is an enjoyable movie but also an uneven one. The first hour is great – it’s charming, surprisingly funny and extremely well made. It’s only when it’s trying to show the downside that there are problems. The issues don’t ruin it, but its tendency towards apologising for the Krays as well as underplaying the full extent of the nasty criminality that it took to build their empire strike a slightly false note as it goes along. Tom Hardy is brilliant though in both roles, showing once again what a great actor he is.
Overall Verdict: There’s fun to be had with Legend, despite it being slightly uneven – and as long as you accept that what it’s telling you is a legend, and not the truth of East End in the 1960s.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac