A chance to bring the British gangster film back to its tough roots, Legend is magnificent. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in it’s own right is fantastic, but its success skewed people’s perception of what the British gangster film should be. And it stands as the modern era’s example against which all others should be judged. Legend instead takes it’s lead from solid classics like The Long Good Friday, while adding a dash of comedy charm. It proves it can be the best of both worlds.
Director and writer Brian Helgeland has form in crime and thrillers. In Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential he fashioned James Ellroy’s book into a screenplay that paid tribute to the glory days of American Noir while being one of the finest examples of the genre itself. While Legend is more baggy (a common problem to biographical films) it is a similar success; a modern take on old fashioned style.
The structure of Legend revolves around the narration of Reggie Kray’s wife, Francis (Emily Browning). In itself that is a clever conceit, giving sentiment and humanity a strong voice in the Kray’s world. The myth is that they looked after their own, family came first, that they only extorted those who deserved it, etc. Actually that’s rubbish of course; they were criminals, plain and simple. The film recognises both sides and allows us to be in turns charmed and horrified, just like Francis. We get in close without having to sympathise with the brothers. This is a film about their relationship to Francis, rather than the idea their mother was the real power (as suggested by 1990’s The Krays with Billie Whitelaw and the Kemp brothers).
Despite the responsibility, Browning has a difficult role as Emily and pulls it off brilliantly. She represents a timid innocence to be exploited by Reggie, despite his best intentions. She is both tied to and in sharp relief to the ferocious Tom Hardy who is yet to give a poor performance. And it’s buy-one-get-one-free this time! We finally have someone able to stand up to the shadow of Bob Hoskins (The Long Good Friday) and Michael Caine (Get Carter). He finds the fierce intelligence in Ronnie and the real monster in the charming Reggie. It’ll be Ronnie you’re more likely to remember though. The dialogue is rich throughout, but he gets the best lines and will disarm you with a mere stare.
There is solid support in the rest of the cast, especially from the coppers. With Christopher Eccleston as Nipper, the Detective doggedly hunting the Krays, they never feel like idiotic stereotypes. Even when the brother’s are running rings around the Government and it would be easy to make the establishment a laughing stock, there is humour, but not absolutely at their expense, somewhat helped by Kevin McNally as Harold Wilson in a brief role. Taron Egerton also deserves a mention, building on his confident lead in Kingsman, seen here as Ronnie’s homosexual sidekick.
There are no gimmicks in Helgeland’s direction. There was ample opportunity to pull a Scorcese, with flashy editing to match the soundtrack, but instead he lets the cast take the lead in a convincing and bright 1960s London setting. Not to say he’s lazy, far from it; it’s a shrewd triumph of understatement and classical film-making. The joins between Hardy’s two roles, even when they fight each other, are invisible. The violence isn’t over the top either. It is neither ignored nor glamourised, even in the most horrific moments.
Ultimately Legend is a fascinating study of the notorious brothers, their relationship to each other and, through Francis, to the normal everyday world -our world- that would be forever enamoured by a pair of lunatic murderers. That it never excuses their actions is to its credit.