“It takes a lot of love to hate a man this much” narrates Reggie Kray’s wife in the opening of the new British gangster film, Legend. It is a deft line that embodies the conflicted attitude many Brits have towards the notorious Kray twins. While they were often brutally violent and tyrannical during their reign of East London in the 50s and 60s, they possessed an iconic glamour that polished over the criminality of their empire. Writer and director Brian Helgeland tries to delve into the myth and balance these two discordant elements, with Tom Hardy playing both Ronald and Reginald in an eye-catching performance.
Tom Hardy has understandably drawn a lot of attention for his acting here. In the past few years, he has established himself as Britain’s finest leading actor, and many of his best qualities are on display in Legend: his versatility, his charisma, his physicality, his complexity. As Reggie, he is charming yet imposing, whilst as Ronald he is deranged yet vulnerable. Legend will not go down as Hardy’s finest performance, however, as his portrayals veer dangerously close to caricatures, especially in the case of Ronald. This being said, audiences will have a great deal of fun watching Hardy argue and fight with himself.
As for Helgeland’s direction, it is greatly indebted to Scorsese, particularly GoodFellas; with regard to its cool soundtrack, its narration, its stylish camera work. This is exemplified best in Reggie’s first date with wife-to-be Frances (Emily Browning), which, from their entrance into his nightclub to their first kiss at the table, is all filmed in one take. The sequence effectively summarises the film, in the way Reggie tries to balance his business matters with entertaining Frances. It displays his duality, as he takes leave of Frances to violently deal with a client, before returning to charm her into falling for him.
Their relationship is the core of the film, though the decision to have Frances narrate the film is ultimately flawed. The reason Scorsese’s films such as GoodFellas and Wolf of Wall Street are successful is that they are as self-absorbed as they are glamorous. They are insider tales, told by characters with distorted moral compasses. However, Frances is on fringe of her husband’s violent empire, and she is repulsed by their criminal activity. Yet why is their criminality often so comical, their violence so cartoonish? Furthermore, it is strange that Frances’ character seems to be underwritten. She was obviously a complicated character, spiralling as she did into drug abuse, yet in Legend she is seems merely a device into the heart of the Kray’s Empire, her complexity relatively unexplored until the end.
What many will perceive to be the film’s strengths could conversely be seen as weaknesses. As the screenwriter of L.A. Confidential, Helgeland clearly knows a lot about the crime and corruption in a major city, and how it can be glamorised to the point of tolerance. In Legend’s case, the film is blackly funny, the script is slick and the sets are sleek and shiny. But is it too blackly funny, too slick, too sleek and shiny? There have been so many books, films and documentaries about the twins that one might question whether this film was even necessary. All it seems to do is introduce the Krays to a new generation, and as the title suggests, it explores the legend but does more to sustain it rather than break it down.