Considering that they are considered to be two of the most notorious criminals in British history, it makes sense that filmmakers would be intrigued by the Krays. Ruthlessly squeezing their hands around the throat of East End of London, the brothers carried an almost mythical allure. The problem is, once you get past the obvious fact that they were twins, how does one tell their story in a way that separates them from the countless number of gangsters who have been immortalized on the big screen?
This is the corner director Peter Medak painted himself into when he made The Krays back in the 90’s. Aside from casting actual twins in the lead roles, Medak’s film lacked that sense of originality and vigor needed to show why the Krays were such intriguing figures. Brian Helgeland also falls through a similar trap door with Legend, an ultimately lackluster attempt to revitalize the Krays story.
Casting Tom Hardy in the roles of Ronnie and Reggie Kray, Helgeland’s film takes an unusual approach. Legend wraps a large portion of the narrative in the rough blanket of a love story. Told through the eyes of Frances Shea (Emily Browning), the film takes place when she first meets her future husband Reggie. The more suave and level-headed of the two brothers, Reggie is a man who is always thinking two-steps ahead of the competition. Equally loved and feared by the East End residents, he openly mocks those, such as Detective Superintendent Leonard “Nipper” Read (Christopher Eccleston), who dare to oppose him. While others never question Reggie’s confidence and drive, the same cannot be said for his loyalty to his brother Ronnie.
Bloodthirsty and unstable mentally, Ronnie embraces the gangster lifestyle with a recklessness that always threatens to topple the empire the brothers have worked so hard to build. Though he welcomes Frances to the family with open harms, Ronnie has no intention of letting her take Reggie away from the criminal world.
Providing a great performance, or should I say great performances, as the gangster siblings, Tom Hardy does everything in his power to try and elevate the film above its peers. Legend is most compelling when focusing on the character of Ronnie and the impact he has on Reggie. Unfortunately there is simply not enough of these moments to sustain the film. Helgeland’s primary interest is in Frances and Reggie’s relationship, but offers little reason for the audience to care about the couple in the first place.
The audience is told that the couple loved each other deeply, but Legend never delves into the central romance with any real depth. Telling the story from Frances’ point of view is also problematic. Though Browning does the best with the material she is given, Frances is by far the least interesting character in the film. Outside of a previous mental issue that is hinted at, but never explored, there is little about Frances that justifies her being such an integral part of the film.
It also does not help that Helgeland never truly settles on a particular tone. Approaching the 1960’s with a Goodfellas-style nostalgia, the film tries admirably to find that delicate balance of glamour, humour and violence but misses the mark. A perfect example of this is when the film briefly touches on the feud between the Krays and the Torture Gang led by Charlie Richardson (Paul Bettany). The film wants to be both sinister and amusing in these sequences, but never feels fully realized on either count. After a while the audience cannot help but sit back and coldly observe the film unfold from a distance.
The rise and fall of Ronnie and Reggie Kray is a fascinating story, however, Legend never gives it the satisfying treatment it deserves.