Gangster stories have lent themselves to deep and dynamic films over the years that have evoked impassioned responses from moviegoers. With the likes of The French Connection and The Godfather installments, mobster movies driven by drama and violence have won over audiences and attracted ample awards attention to boot. Legend, the crime-drama chronicling the true story of London’s scandalous Kray brothers, falls short of hitting the Scarface standard but manages to entertain and educate nonetheless.
Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, best known for his L.A. Confidential Oscar-winning screenplay, Legend stars Tom Hardy as the identical Kray twins. The film investigates the rise and demise of Ronald and Reginald, who stabbed and shot their way to the top of London’s mob scene in the 1960s. It co-stars Emily Browning as Reggie’s love interest Frances Shea as well as Paul Bettany and Chazz Palminteri as other gangster players.
The unmistakable highlight of the film is the arresting performances of its actors, led by the gripping Hardy.
The actor garnered Oscar recognition for The Revenant, but it’s his riveting portrayal of the Kray brothers that is his most impressive this year. Hardy brings charm and charisma to the smooth Reggie and infuses a level of intense neurosis into the unhinged, diagnosed schizophrenic Ronnie. It’s a complex and immensely challenging order to play two characters in one film, but Hardy pulls it off with apparent effortlessness.
Not to be overshadowed, Browning excels as Frances, the delicate woman Reggie courts. Her performance is steeped in despair and defiance, a balance not easily struck. One of Helgeland’s smartest choices was opting to tell the story through the eyes of Frances. Browning narrates the film and instills a welcome female perspective on the masculine legends.
The other supporting actors – including Paul Bettany as South London mobster Eddie Richardson, who was an obstacle in the Krays’ path, and Chazz Palminteri as American-Sicilian gangster Angelo “The Gentle Don” Bruno – complement the poignant deliveries of Hardy and Browning.
The music employed throughout Legend assists in establishing the era the film is set in. The score, beautifully composed by Carter Burwell (Fargo and the Oscar-nominated Carol), as well as the Motown/R&B tracks by such bands as The Righteous Brothers, transport viewers to the vibrant days of the period.
The costumes by Caroline Harris and sets by Academy Award-nominated Crispian Sallis also hark back to the glamorous decade when the Krays, who became style icons, wreaked havoc. Sweeping social change was the theme of the 1960s and designers reflected this in their work. The colorful fabrics and bold patterns of the costumes and set decor illuminate the liberal spirit of the time.
Christine Blundell’s masterful makeup work deserves distinction as well. The Oscar-winning artist brilliantly transforms Hardy so the striking actor is nearly unrecognizable, specifically as the manic and unstable Ronnie, who was more sinister looking and physically domineering than his brother.
However, despite the film’s strengths, it isn’t without weaknesses.
Legend bleeds over the two-hour mark, which is lengthy by any standard, but drags in places so watching the film feels more like a three-hour endeavor. This is in part due to Helgeland’s unfocused storytelling.
The multitude of mobsters that enter the narrative aren’t all afforded adequate introduction, which makes identifying them in select scenes challenging at best. And the accents applied by the actors may be characteristic of 1960s Londoners, but they’re so heavy that deciphering the language in spots proves difficult. These nearly incomprehensible moments call for subtitles.
Above all, Legend is a biopic, and the honesty with which it conveys the Kray twins is perhaps the element of their tale that will stay with audiences after the final credits roll. Reggie comes across as seductively suave, which is historically accurate, but it’s the sincerity in Ronnie’s representation that demands praise.
Ronnie was unabashedly gay and the film honors this component of his character. Never do the filmmakers shy away from this reality, which could have been glossed over in favor of appealing to a heterosexual, stereotypically masculine audience. Fans of traditional gangster films aren’t accustomed to overtly homosexual references in the depictions of such stories, least of all in lead characters, so the fact that Legend is authentic in this detail is commendable.
If nothing else, Legend encapsulates the wild and enticing story of the notorious Kray twins and their gang The Firm. Once described as the most dangerous men in Britain, the loyal-to-the-death brothers longed for the limelight and with this film they’re cast in it.
Blu-ray/DVD bonus features
The Blu-ray disc version of the film includes a feature commentary with writer/director Helgeland as well as an intimate look at the making of the movie, called Creating the Legend. This informative segment includes interviews with cast and crew members that fans of the film will revel in. For example, it’s revealed that 95 percent of the sets are real locations that were frequented by the Kray brothers. It’s also divulged that Hardy acted out his scenes as Reggie first and then stepped into Ronnie’s shoes, and that it only took him an hour to transition between brothers.