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On Legend, and truly funny violence

September 2nd, 2015

Legend is not a nice film — no film that tells the story of the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, could ever reasonably hope to be.



Instead, what Legend manages to be is both brutally violent and extraordinarily entertaining at the same time. Tom Hardy is outstanding as both Reggie and Ronnie, finding depth in the differences between the brothers. Ronnie, the truly insane twin, a mouth-breathing paranoid schizophrenic who, in Hardy’s portrayal, seems to find joy and release in his violence, is depicted as a man-child, a thoroughly dangerous individual who fails fully to understand the enormity of his acts. Reggie, on the other hand, is played by Hardy as a more straightforward sociopath, a truly nasty man who will hurt whomever he needs to in the cause of advancing his own interests. It’s a truly fantastic performance, one that’s likely to see Tom Hardy wearing a dinner suit in Hollywood in January waiting to hear his name called.

He’s helped, of course, by a quite superb supporting cast. Underused — criminally — is Christopher Eccleston as Nipper Read, the copper who doggedly followed the Krays and eventually put them away. But more remarkable is Emily Blunt as Frances Shae, Reggie’s wife (or, possibly, his beard — Ronnie is quite forthright in his preference for boys), who narrates the story.

The story, of course, is shabby and squalid and nasty and ugly, telling as it does of the rise of two violent, thuggish men who terrorised the East End of London for much of the 196os while maintaining a veneer of respectability through their establishment connections. But it’s a story that’s told with style by Brian Helgeland, offering us a glimpse of what little human side the Krays managed to maintain as they descended into violence and brutality.

There are, indeed, moments of wonderful humour, funny and dark and shocking at once — Ronnie’s disappointment, complete with spittle-flying rage, at the thought of missing out on a shootout “like a western” is so sharply drawn that you’ll still be laughing as he shatters a man’s kneecaps with a pair of hammers. That’s not an easy trick for a director to pull off. But Helgeland, a director whose CV includes films as stylish and entertaining as LA Confidential and the wonderful A Knight’s Tale, manages to find humour — genuinely funny, properly laugh-out-loud-between-winces humour — in scenes of men having electric shocks administered to their nipples while being strung up by their ankles.

Almost as much of a star in Legend is London itself, the backdrop to the story of Ronnie and Reggie. London of the 1960s is, typically, Carnaby Street, all primary colours and pretty young things enjoying the release that the 60s offered. But Legend offers a different perspective — the East End, grey and grim and grindingly suffocating. Set against that background, the attraction of the life that Reggie offers Frances — his Frankie — is easier to comprehend.

Helgeland and Hardy portray the Krays as human beings, deeply flawed men with little to redeem them, but at the same time they manage to find humanity in their subjects. Reggie’s deteriorating relationship with Frankie is played with finesse and nuance, Browning more than equal to the task of working alongside Tom Hardy’s quite remarkable performance.

This is, as has been mentioned, not a pleasant film. It’s a brutally violent story of two very unpleasant men. But it’s also a very, very funny, film, a story of two men whose story needed to be told. And, oh yes, it’s very good.

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