I hope writer-director Brian Helgeland intended the title of his new movie Legend to be ironic. His subjects are real-life identical twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray (both played in the movie by Tom Hardy). Behind their thin facade of respectable nightclub owners, the Krays reveled in being crime lords in London during the 1950s and ’60s, celebrities in their way. Still, as presented by Helgeland and portrayed by Hardy, they are hardly the stuff of legend. The Krays they give us are just about the most squalid pair of psychopaths you could ever hope to avoid meeting.
Helgeland, an Oscar winner for his L.A. Confidential screenplay, tells his tale with brutal aplomb. It helps that Hardy gives a performance—two performances, really—certain to make everybody’s short list when award time rolls around. Hardy’s dual characterization clearly delineates both men: Reggie with his working-class suavity, affably offering cups of tea to the Scotland Yard coppers staking out his home waiting for a false move, boyishly courting his future wife Frances (Emily Browning), the sister of an underling; and the paranoid-schizophrenic Ronnie, babbling volcanically on inchoate thoughts all his own, sporadically lashing out with vicious suddenness. In Hardy’s hands—as some say was the case in real life—the difference between the two brothers is crystal clear, but it’s one of degree rather than of kind. His Reggie has the same mile-wide vicious streak as Ronnie, but Reggie is more the master than the slave of it.
If Helgeland’s intention with his script (adapted from John Pearson’s book The Profession of Violence) was to give us an insight into what made these differently demented brothers tick, he doesn’t succeed. Even as we stand awestruck at Hardy’s tour de force performance, the pair remains repellent and inhuman. But that very inhumanity, observed from the safe distance of a movie theater, is itself an asset; there’s a can’t-look-away fascination to the story as Helgeland tells it.
Legend’s structure is occasionally ungainly, and despite the wealth of period detail in Tom Conroy’s production design and Caroline Harris’ costumes, it’s not always clear exactly what timespan the movie covers. References to gangs and individuals are dropped in almost offhandedly, as if Helgeland assumes we’re familiar with all this. And perhaps some audiences are; the story of the Krays is much better known in Great Britain than it is in America.
Fascinating as Legend is in showing the seamy underside of Swingin’ 1960s London, Helgeland doesn’t go out of his way to give us anyone to sympathize with. The police who eventually brought the Krays down are shown as either hapless or brutal. The closest thing we get is Reggie’s emotionally fragile wife Frances, in the form of Browning’s performance, at once hard-boiled and wistful. Frances narrates the movie in voice-over (Helgeland recycles a dramatic device he used in L.A. Confidential, which he in turn cribbed from Sunset Blvd.), but the role is rather under-written. Our sympathy goes out more to Browning’s doe-eyed acting than to Frances as she’s written. We don’t learn what makes her tick any more than we do with Reggie or Ronnie, but at least she’s somebody to give a damn about.