LEGEND is not the first biopic of the notorious Kray Brothers to hit the big screen. The identical twin brothers, who were both vicious gangsters and pop-culture celebrities in the 1950s and 60s, were portrayed by the Kemp brothers, Gary and Martin as Ronnie and Reggie respectively in 1990’s THE KRAYS, a film that spent more time on the Krays’ family life and the relationship they had with their doting mother, Violet. In LEGEND, Tom Hardy plays both brothers, thanks to some slick CGI that allows him to have a knock-down, drag-out fight with himself, and the perspective is that of Reggie’s first wife, Frances (Emily Browning), a fragile-looking, but spunky East End girl who won’t listen to her mother when it comes to hearing about the downside of dating a gangster. Even a rich one who owns clubs, dresses well, and drives a spiffy car.
In a script that is sometimes maddeningly episodic and unfocused, Hardy gives a magnificent performance as both Reggie, the brains of the operation, and as Ron, the one who was clinically insane. He somehow manages to use the different personalities to fundamentally change the way he looks in ways that have nothing to do with only one of them (Ronnie) wearing glasses. We are assured by Frances that Reggie was very sweet, and to be sure his courtship of her has the soul of romance, including climbing a drainpipe up to her window as he pitches woo in a modern, working-class version of Romeo and Juliet. He’s also sincerely and respectfully apologetic to Frances as he excuses himself during this first date with her to go deal with an underling (aka drawing blood) who has misbehaved. For her, he is willing to go straight, which is Frances’ condition for getting married. Of course he can’t.
Having an outsider’s view of the twins has its charms. When Reggie first introduces her to Ronnie, the stolid, straightforward, awkward lump of clay informs her that he is a homosexual, and then explains in precise detail his particular sexual preferences for expressing his orientation. No emotion registers in Ron during the speech. Nor at any other time, even when he is screaming in a peculiar monotone, or beating Reggie to a pulp. Hardy, though, focuses on the abyss in Ronnie, where nothing registers the way it does for the rest of us, even his obsessive dream of founding a Utopia in Nigeria. It bespeaks a psyche so alien to what we accept as the norm that Ronnie is genuinely terrifying even when quietly sipping a cup of tea or telling Frances that he’s always liked her.
As Reggie, Hardy is equally good. A parvenu into the moneyed class, aping the customs of aristocracy just a little self-consciously, enjoying the power of the money he takes and of the fear that he inspires. Yet there is also that sweet side, and the loyal one that never questions the wisdom of forcing a psychiatrist to certify Ronnie as sane and so be released from the sanitarium to which he has been sent to keep him from harming himself or others. In both brothers, there is the distinct instinct for violence that gives the film its dark underpinnings and that keeps the Krays, sane or not, forever outside the bounds of the society they so long to inhabit.
There is a lovely subplot about the kind of sexual scandals the Brits do so well, which is the reason posited in the film for at least part of why the twins were given a wide berth by the authorities. And another involving the policeman (Christopher Eccleston) who refused to be deterred by his superiors or the twins themselves in his quest to bring them down. And a third featuring a perfectly non-plussed David Thewlis as the Kray’s accountant. Thewlis’s character attempting to explain to Ron the subtleties of liquid assets is delightfully observed escalation of suspense and of the absurd, while a fourth, involving Chazz Palminteri as the mob boss sent to London to strike a deal with the Krays, has few scenes, but when it comes to demonstrating what real power is, they are formidable in their very simplicity.
LEGEND has the right look, with a cool and sleek hipster vibe so evocative of the era in which it is set, with camera angles that are provocative and just a little off kilter, as befits the subjects. Its narrative shortcomings are more than compensated by such a haunting performance by Tom Hardy that understands nuance and contradiction; that forgives the weakness while never absolving the criminality.