Legend

October 16, 2015
Tom Hardy in 'Legend' (2015)
Tom Hardy in 'Legend' (2015)

Ronnie and Reggie Kray will forever be linked with the Monty Python sketch about the Piranha Brothers, Doug and Dinsdale. As you may recall, Dinsdale – “a cruel man, but fair” – liked to nail the occasional head to the floor, while Doug’s preferred weapon was sarcasm.

There are plenty of moments in Legend, Brian Helgeland’s bio pic of the Kray twins, when the spirit of Monty Python looms large. There’s a glamour, and even a weird comedy in this tale of the charming Reg and the fearsome, schizophrenic Reggie, who became celebrities in the swinging London of the sixties.

The last time the brothers were captured on screen was Peter Medak’s The Krays (1990), a grimy, arthouse affair, dominated by Billie Whitelaw’s performance as the boys’ mother, Violet, who seemed the scariest member of the family. Believe it or not, the twins were played by Gary and Martin Kemp, of the band, Spandau Ballet.

Helgeland, an American writer-director, who won an Oscar for his script for L.A. Confidential (1997), has chosen to minimise the matriarchal influences. Violet plays only a small part in this film and there is no dwelling on the boys’ East End upbringing.

Legend begins with the Krays already established as successful criminals and nightclub owners. Reggie is wandering down the street greeting the locals, and taunting his arch-enemy, Detective Superintendent, ‘Nipper’ Read, who is parked in a car on the other side of the road. Ronnie is incarcerated, having been declared insane while in prison. It won’t prove difficult to arrange his release.

The great, much-publicised novelty of this film is that Tom Hardy plays both Reggie and Ronnie. The former is smooth and street-wise, the latter a brooding psycho who stares coldly through his glasses, and moves his mouth as if chewing over his words before speaking. It’s a dazzling double act, requiring two different personalities, and contrary sets of body language. Hardy didn’t have much to say in the frenetic Fury Road, and never got out of the car in Locke, but here he produces the performance of his career.

Helgeland uses Reggie’s wife, Frances, as the narrator. She has an insider’s perspective on her husband’s personality, but remains an outsider when it comes to the details of his criminal empire. She is also the only person who threatens to come between the twins, who are bound by a loyalty that overrides every other relationship. This bond means Reg has to stick by a brother growing crazier by the minute. When Ron is rude to Frances, Reg gets angry, but is ready to make excuses. (“He hasn’t been taking his pills.”)

Frances is played in slightly wooden style by Aussie, Emily Browning. It’s a strange piece of casting, as London has no shortage of genuine cockneys.

At the height of their power the Krays were not only the most feared crime bosses in London, they hobnobbed with movie stars, pop singers, politicians and aristocrats. David Bailey took the photos at Reggie and Frances’s lavish wedding.

When the Tory peer, Lord Boothby, was found to be attending homosexual orgies at Ronnie’s apartment, the Krays forced a restraction and an unconditional apology from the newspaper that broke the story. When Ronnie executed a rival gangster in a crowded pub, no witnesses would identify him. Like Jimmy Cagney in White Heat, they were on top of the world.

The Krays had an arrangement with Meyer Lansky, the American mafia boss, which proved lucrative for both parties, but the twins couldn’t maintain the façade of respectable businessmen. This was largely due to Ronnie, whose insanity manifested itself in sadistic, violent acts perpetrated on enemies and friends. Reggie was prepared to play the club-owner and enjoy the spoils, with help from fraudsters such as Leslie Payne (David Thewlis), but would also succumb to blood lust.

Helgeland accepts that beyond the glitz and glamour the Krays were murderous thugs, but for most of the film they appear as romantic figures – even Ronnie, whose violence can be blamed on his illness. The sharp suits, the flash cars, the rich and famous acquaintances, all stamp the brothers as exceptional beings. There’s no end to our cinematic love affair with organised crime.

One might see the Krays as the first big-time gangsters created by the movies. By the time Reggie and Ronnie were terrorising London in the sixties, they had watched a lot of Hollywood films and picked up a few tricks. It was an impersonation that convinced almost everyone, and would have continued if Ronnie hadn’t felt that bona fide gangsters needed to keep spreading fear to maintain their public image. Their biographer, John Pearson, has said that if the Krays hadn’t started killing people they’d have probably ended their careers in the House of Lords.

Legend
Written & directed by Brian Helgeland
Starring Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Paul Anderson, Christopher Eccleston, Sam Spruell, Tara Fitzgerald, Taron Egerton
UK, rated MA 15+, 132 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 17th October, 2015.