Here we have yet another crime-drama based on real life gangsters—Reginald and Ronald Kray, two of England’s most notorious crime bosses. Tom Hardy stars in this film, playing both twin brothers à la The Parent Trap. Understanding this before viewing Legend, I predicted that it was either going to be horrendous or brilliant. Thankfully, it was the latter.
Some criticisms of the movie have claimed it is too violent and difficult to watch. However, it is one of the least graphic and most watchable gangster movies I’ve seen (also, how does one decide to watch a gangster movie and not expect violence?). Director Brian Helgeland shows that the Kray brothers’ lives were plagued with violence, but he clearly makes an effort to keep graphic images to a minimum. The camera will move, for example, to the face of the attacker or to witnesses’ reactions in the middle of a violent scene, making it more effective because the audience is left to imagine the brutality ensuing. The camera doesn’t draw attention to itself in the movie, which also makes it watchable. Tracking shots follow the characters so that the audience feels as though they are part of the movie, but Helgeland doesn’t shake the camera or exaggerate this perspective like Darren Aronofsky did in Black Swan.
Perhaps most importantly, Hardy’s acting was masterful. He captured the physicality of both brothers, which is evident if you watch the movie and then view images of the real Kray twins. Hardy manifests differences in the way each man stands and speaks, and even moves his mouth differently depending on the brother he’s portraying. The build and stature of each brother is also differentiated in the way Hardy adjusts his posture. Finally, he makes the audience sympathize with the Krays, which becomes an incredibly difficult task as the movie progresses.
Legend had a number of memorable lines. It is an undeniably funny movie, much of which is owed to Hardy’s comedic timing. Emily Browning is also a breath of fresh air as Frances Shea, Reggie Kray’s wife. Frances begins as a significantly bolder mob wife than what audiences are used to, and narrates the movie as well. This could have been an exciting perspective but was more often distracting and corny. The line “The Queen would survive, but God save the rest of us,” stands out as especially out of place, and would have been amusing if it had been said almost anywhere else in the film.
We witness Frances’ deterioration as the movie goes on, and Browning manifests this subtly yet strongly. When she asserts her devotion to Reggie in the end, calling him her “prince” despite the fact that he attacked her, it is difficult to tell whether the movie seeks to display the tragic, perverse logic of an abused wife or whether it means to laud Reggie as a misunderstood hero. Hopefully it is the former, but I’ve yet to discern what the true intentions were. Nonetheless, it seemed uncharacteristic and disconcerting, which speaks more to the movie’s writing than Browning’s acting.
Legend has all the British humor of a Guy Ritchie movie, all the rise-and-fall drama of a Martin Scorcese film, and the insane yet memorable leading characters of Brian De Palma’s Scarface. The usage of Frances Shea as a narrator was a great idea with disappointing results, but the narration is not constant and is therefore forgivable considering the captivating acting of the cast. Any fan of gangster movies should give this film a chance.