Legend review - Tom Hardy takes double duty in cartoonish Krays biopic

It’s two thugs for the price of one actor and while flashes of brilliance emerge from his performance(s), Hardy is let down by disappointingly pedestrian surroundings

It’s one of the most tantalising setups of the year: Tom Hardy, who’s mastered the art of playing a bruiser in Bronson, Warrior and The Dark Knight Rises, as both Ronnie and Reggie Kray. So how did a violent, fact-based tale of the rise of London’s most notorious gangsters end up less thrilling than last year’s Locke, which saw Hardy take some phone calls in a car?

Hardy, with the help of some digital trickery, tries his best. As Reggie, his charm acts as a temporary cover for his violent nature, a cover that Ronnie doesn’t possess. One of the few smart choices made by Brian Helgeland, who writes and directs, is to start the film with the Krays already in power. We’re not force fed the biopic rulebook and we’re spared the childhood montage. As we meet the twins, they’re already looming large over the East End of London; and with opposition from rival firms, they’re locked in a battle for supremacy as they expand their empire and work with gangsters from across the pond.

But the film is only mildly interested in all that. Instead, Reggie’s burgeoning relationship with the 18-year-old Frances, AKA Frankie, takes centre stage. In one of the film’s strangest moves, Frankie, played with semi-conviction by Emily Browning, becomes the film’s narrator as she recounts inner-gangland dealings, the police hunt for the pair and other events that she would have absolutely zero awareness of. The narration becomes lazy shorthand for a script that’s lacking in depth but overflowing with bad dialogue (“A dirty deal for a clean life”) and, given the short shrift that’s given to the Krays’ criminal dealings, the focus on Reggie’s marriage feels a clumsy way of appealing to a wider audience.

Despite the fact that we’re dealing with all too real and relatively recent events, the entire film is given a brightly lit, cartoonish feel as if we’re watching an adaptation of a gaudy graphic novel. Scenes are constructed as if they’re part of a stage production, the soundtrack is clunky and filled with maddeningly obvious choices (Chapel of Love for the wedding? Check) and the production design is strangely glossy, making us feel as if we’re killing time at the swinging 60s wing of a theme park. The result is a major lack of atmosphere and an overwhelming stench of inauthenticity. We’re never transported, we’re merely stuck on a tour bus.

While Hardy is undeniably commanding as Reggie, in the more difficult role of Ronnie, he is only intermittently effective. Too often Hardy’s performance falls into broad “crazy eyes” villainy, with a voice that recalls a slightly more distinct Bane. But given Helgeland’s equally pantomime surroundings, one can’t really blame him too much.

Ultimately, there’s not enough within Legend to elevate it from other British crime films, despite the wealth of real-life drama to play with. By turning the period into a playground, it softens the horror of what really happened, and the tyranny of the Krays becomes diminished as a result. It’s a disappointingly shallow take on a fascinating period of time and leaves us sorely uninformed, as if we’ve skim-read a pamphlet. The legend might live on but Legend certainly won’t.


Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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