Power. Fear. Family.
As with all biopics, there are two reviews to write. The first analysing the film as an artistic narrative and the second as a documentary. Nobody likes the latter. We all know details are inaccurate, exchanges are highly fictionalised and individuals and events are amalgamated. As such, I will try to refrain from bringing up the source material too much; even if it is a huge factor into why this film sort of doesn’t work.
Set in 1960’s London we are quickly introduced to Reginald Kray [Hardy], a successful club owner and criminal operating out of the East End. The story is narrated by Frances Shea [Browning], a teenage girl that Reggie became infatuated with and eventually married. The story then introduces Reggie’s criminally insane twin brother Ronald [Hardy]. Ronnie is a keenly intelligent individual but also severely unstable without specific and constant medication. The Kray’s hold over London increases and soon they are left unopposed thanks to a scandal involving politicians from both of the leading parties. Reggie represents the business mindset, intent on establishing a legitimate name for himself as a club entrepreneur, whereas Ronnie has no qualms dealing with people he denotes to be a threat in the only way his gangster mind can. As tensions grow, animosity between Frances and Ronnie becomes more pronounced, causing rifts between the three.
Coming from the director of A Knight’s Tale, it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that Helgeland has taken the life of the Kray twins as a sort of inspirational starting point, rather than an exact blueprint. An equally interesting choice was the specific narrative focus of the story, excluding the twins’ rise to power and any childhood/teenage flashbacks. But by flushing out the trials and tribulations Ronnie and Reggie faced on their way up, we don’t really appreciate the extents of what these men are capable of, not to mention their grip on the East End of London and the celebrity status they achieved across England. And no, a few shots of Reggie being recognised by random people in the street and the overbearing narration confirming that his influence was widespread is not nearly enough. In all honesty, as much as I adore cinema, there are certain stories which simply work better over a prolonged period. And with the success of the BBC’s high-budget Peaky Blinders and Netflix’s Narcos, one wonders if a serialised format would not be better suited to tell this particular tale. But I digress.
With a lot of these releases, even when the storytelling is a bit flustered, the technical execution generally steps in and emphasises the mood and setting. Unfortunately the only emphasis made here is to heighten the confused direction. There’s several nice uses of humour but they come at the expense of tension, the editing jumps around a little erratically making it difficult to put a finger on how much time has passed and possibly most jarring, the cinematography is arguably very good but equally somewhat inappropriate. I’m not a fan of the high contrast, desaturated look but in this case, it might have been useful. Films like The Long Good Friday, Lock, Stock And Two Smokin’ Barrels, Layer Cake and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy make good use of the overall grey look of London. Admittedly, none of these releases are set in the 60’s but the overall cartoonish, slightly Austin Powers aesthetic rings false. Mixing gangland banter with torture and bright setups with random violence, it’s almost as if the film doesn’t know what it is. Are we talking about a gritty exposé of London gangsters or is this a romantic comedy with an unhinged twin? What’s more frustrating is the fact that the locations used and the general production design are incredibly decent. The costumes are period appropriate without going too far down that cravat and velvet road and the hair and make-up feel generally of the time although everyone is far too glamourous for the East End. And finally the icing on the weirdness cake is Carter Burwell’s score. Returning readers will know that I really appreciate the simplicity of Burwell’s stirring melodies; he’s an amazing talent and I’m always happy to see him attached to a project. And yet the music here feels off. At times it’s pitch perfect and really laces the mood but at other times it’s massively over-imposing. If I had to guess, I would assume the intent was to replicate that heavy musical thematic style of something like The Long Good Friday but it just blares out at you like a transitional sting from 70’s TV.
**Pretty big spoiler toward the end of this paragraph**
I’ve rather intentionally left out discussing the acting until this point, primarily because it’s the real highlight of this film.. sort of. The first thing Helgeland did right was to cast someone who is actually from London as the Krays. Tom Hardy is an exceptional acting talent (obviously) and when he hits his stride with a role he produces something really impressive. And yet, very early on in the design process a horrible decision was made. Anyone who’s seen an interview with the Krays knows they were squeaky voiced East End boxers; short little bruisers with big ears, unintimidating voices and big fists. Some could argue that sort of describes Mr. Hardy. So immediately, he’s perfect for the role and his portrayal of Reggie Kray is absolutely wonderful; wreathed with charm, presence and menace. Then we have Ronnie Kray, the clinically unstable twin. Armed with prosthetic teeth, a baritone voice and a crazy-eyed stare, he’s a bit of a caricature; an extremely entertaining caricature but a hyper-real one nevertheless. Personally, I think it would have been much more effective and interesting to have Reggie and Ronnie portrayed almost exactly the same (with different hair and a pair of glasses to distinguish them) with the unhinged one flying into random fits of rage and absurdity. If only because all the eloquence, humour and obvious intelligence that Ronnie possess feels completely false and unrealistic. Then we have Emily Browning and her narration. Credit to the Aussie, she does a good job with the accent and her slide from innocent teenager to pill-popping depressive is commendable. Having said that, the choice to make her the story’s guide was a weird one. I understand the notion of introducing us to these characters through the eyes of someone on the outside but it also means that with her eventual death the film limps on for another twenty minutes, trying to find a comfortable conclusion. Which it doesn’t. In truth, there isn’t much point discussing the supporting characters, who are relegated to the background. There are a handful of interesting cameos and Taron Egerton as Mad Teddy is impressive enough but really this is a Tom Hardy showpiece.
And so one of the most promising releases of the year turns out to be fairly mediocre fare. Like Child 44 all the parts were perfectly assembled but the whole never really amounted to the success that it could have been.
11th September 2015
The Scene To Look Out For:
For Reggie and Frances’ first date, Reg takes Frankie to his club and introduces her to the secret world of celebrities rubbing shoulders with underground boxers and criminals. It’s one of the rare uses of showing us this world rather than having Browning simply narrating about it. And to top it all off, the whole thing is one long impressive tracking shot, serving to highlight the exemplary organisation of the crew and acting talent of the cast. It’s a shame more of this couldn’t be utilised – probably because of the whole single actor/double role business.
As I’ve already discussed Hardy and Browning, I probably need to talk about one of the supporting roles. Which I’m hesitant to do as they either don’t have a great deal of screen time or simply fail to make much of a lasting impression. One of the biggest surprises was the presence of Paul Bettany portraying South London gangster Charlie Richardson. His weird affectation of a mock courtroom robs his introductory scene of any real threat and as soon as he’s introduced, he’s nicked and whisked away just as fast, never to be seen or heard from again.
“Nah, come off it. You think he’s beautiful and I’ve got a face like a gorilla’s arse”
In A Few Words:
“Not exactly what I was expecting and considering the talent and source material involved, the overall feeling one is left with is disappointment”