Although at times beautiful and compelling, this “gangster film” pulls a bait & switch by focusing mostly on Reggie Kray’s relationship with his first wife.
In a thoroughly delightful dual-role Tom Hardy plays twins Ronald & Reggie Kray. The Kray’s may not be a household name in the U.S., but in Europe their reign was legendary. Growing up on the East End, they worked their way up the criminal ranks (none of which is seen on screen) until they eventually owned very successful nightclubs on the West End. It was during this point in the 60’s, when their celebrity status rivaled their criminal status, that the majority of “Legend” takes place.
Ron and Reggie couldn’t have been more different. Reggie was usually calculating and careful. Ron was emotionally fragile and certified insane. Tom Hardy does an incredible job of crafting these two fascinating characters as distinct individuals. Many times the dual-role performance can be nothing more than a gimmick. Not so with this film. In fact, it begs to ask the question, could Hardy be nominated for two best actor roles in the same movie? His version of Ron balances on a tightrope of humorous and terrifying. A confused man so unhinged and violent that you are never fully sure what he is capable of.
Instead of following the typical Gangster Movie format, writer/director Brian Helgeland has Reggie’s soon to be wife, Frances (Emily Browning), narrate the entire film from her perspective. At first it’s an interesting take but drags on over time. It’s not her performance but the dialog and story direction we are forced to follow. Rather than show us how the Kray’s came to power, or show us all the criminal activities Frances grew to despise, instead we are only told in simple sentences. Helgeland seems to be more intrigued with the rocky relationship between her and Reggie Kray.
Both Emily Browning & Tom Hardy have a tremendous screen presence. When either of these two (three?) are on screen, the movie shines. But when a film promises to tell the story of infamous identical twin British gangsters, and instead you are presented a 2+ hour love/hate story that follows the typical tropes and contrivances we’re all accustomed to, it can be hard to swallow. Other fascinating characters, such as Christopher Eccleston‘s perpetually perturbed detective and Paul Bettany’s rival gangster, are given a near insulting amount of screen time. We’re teased with such interesting colors, locations, accents, and fringe characters, but we don’t leave satisfied.
“Legend” is a difficult film to assign a score to. It approaches magnificence in many areas without ever quite reaching it. If viewed as a period romance, it again almost works, but the jarring shift in tone near the end spoils that as well. Ironically, what this film likely needed most is identical to what the Krays desired most as well: Reduced time.