LEGEND Starring Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, Paul Bettany, Taron Egerton, Christopher Eccleston, David Thewlis, Colin Morgan, Aneurin Barnard, Tara Fitzgerald, Kevin McNally, Chaz Palminteri, Sam Spruell. Directed by Brian 131 minutes. Rated MA 15+.

Interesting that the title for this film about the infamous Kray brothers settles for “legend”. It has been said in the past that Americans making gangster films, Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather series, Martin Scorsese for Goodfellas, go beyond legend into the area of “myth”, not just a history of the exploits of these gangsters but creating tales that, while not necessarily glorifying them, puts them on some kind of higher plane.

During Legend, the characters have quite a number of cups of tea. Frances, Reggie Kray’s wife, does the voice-over commentary, a means for getting the audience to identify with her and her perspective on the Krays. It is she who makes the comments about locals always relying on a cup of tea to solve everything. So, it might be said, that the Krays were very cup of tea gangsters and so, the stuff of legend rather than myth.

It is half a century since the Kray brothers dominated London, from the East End where they grew up and began their criminal activities (while being very kind and neighbourly, with pleasant words and donations to the locals), getting money from protection extortion, trying to go somewhat legitimate by having clever accountants work for them, buying up clubs, sponsoring gambling, going more up-market as time went on, attracting a great number of celebrities who traded on the reputation of the Krays. They became gangster celebrities in their own world and a little beyond (the Mafia becoming interested in them with London as a possible English Las Vegas but a bit bewildered by the British style, less flamboyant than Italian gangsters, their heightened self-image and their families and mamas).

There was a film, The Krays, in 1990 with the twins, Gary and Martin Kemp in the central roles, but with a very strong focus on their mother, Violet, played by Billie Whitelaw. While Violet does appear briefly in this film, especially providing cups of tea and plates of cake, the focus is definitely on the twin brothers. And the key arresting aspect is Tom Hardy, always an excellent actor, who plays both brothers. We recognise him as he plays Reggie Kray, the brains behind the duo, the leader, decision-maker. It is far more difficult to recognise him as Ronnie Kray, different head, chubby face, spectacles, and a certified psychopath. Hardy gives two tour-de-force performances.

The London 1966 world is well recreated, streets and facades of old homes, local shops, restaurants and, then, the clubs. There is quite a range of songs from the period, strongly reinforcing the atmosphere.

The film traces the career of the Krays, their self-image, their ambitions, their being in love with the idea of the gangster, putting it into practice in their rather limited world, building up a group of thugs around them, moving somewhat into the big time, even with political connections. Yet, Reggie agreeably goes to jail for six months, they indulge in intimidation of witnesses in court cases, and Reggie sees himself as just another character, or rather a dominating character, around the East End.

Ronnie, on the other hand, finds himself very early in a mental institution, his brother intimidating a psychiatrist, who privately acknowledges Ronnie’s madness, to declare him fit for release – surviving as long as he takes his tablets. The other complication is that Ronnie is unembarrassedly homosexual, two young men always in tow, wanting to build a village in Nigeria for helping the locals, trying to get political endorsement and finance but only linking himself with Lord Boothby and homosexual orgies. This is brought to the attention of Harold Wilson, trying to deal with scandals and political motivations before an election.

And, in the meantime, Scotland Yard tails Reggie Kray who chats with them, offers the officers cups of tea, taunts them. Inspector Read is played with single-minded determination by Christopher Eccleston.

As has been mentioned, the voice-over is by Frances, Emily Browning. Her brother works for the Kray, she marries him, but fails in her ambitions to reform him and she takes an overdose.

For those who do not know the ending, they might expect gangsters to go out in a blaze of the ending gun glory, something like the American gangsters. On the contrary, Ronnie after an attempted murder is confined to a psychiatric institution for almost three decades. Reggie Kray, after a brutal murder, spends more than thirty years in prison. But, they caught the British imagination, and here they are still living as cinema legends.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Studio Canal

Out October 8, 2015.

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