When I think of great dual performances, there are two that spring instantly to mind. First, Jeremy Irons as the Mantle twins in David Cronenberg’s 1988 surgical drama Dead Ringers (one of the best films in a cluttered career), and then also Nicolas Cage portraying both Charlie Kaufman and his fictional brother Donald in Spike Jonze’s equally exceptional 2002 film Adaptation. The latter marks one of the few times you could whole-heartedly call a Cage performance ‘awards-worthy’ without slapping down a hefty amount of sarcasm. In fact, that Cage lost out to Sean Penn for Mystic River at the Oscars still rubs a little raw. One of the few years I’ve watched the ceremony, I was cheering for Cage.
Anyway, I digress. These two fabulous films show that it can be done brilliantly. Some visual trickery allowing one actor to portray two physically identical but psychologically nuanced and separate entities. It can be fascinating, and very, very impressive.
Or, it can turn out like Brian Helgeland’s Legend, which features Tom Hardy’s two worst performances that I’ve seen. Scratch that. One of the least interesting along with definitely the most offensive.
Legend (an unoriginal and uninspiring moniker, especially considering that there’s a famous Ridley Scott film of the same name) retells the story of the brothers Kray, East End thugs who spread intimidation and extortion around London for a number of years in the 1960’s. Peter Medak already gave this tale a go back in 1990 with the equally uninspired (but more to the point) The Krays starring Martin and Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet. It wasn’t a great film by any means, but it was better than this.
I’m having to go against the grain here a little. From the posters for Legend I get the strong sense this is winning critics everywhere. I’m not sure why.
Tom Hardy stars as both Ronald and Reggie Kray. Reggie is the more well-adjusted brother i.e. he knows how to wear a suit nicely and speaks audibly. Hardy puts on the necessary but distracting cockney accent, which has the curious effect of making him sound like he’s always in the next room. Whatever. He stands up straight and smokes cigarettes. He draws the attention of local girl Frances Shea (Emily Browning) and likes to talk of himself as a club owner and not a gangster, distancing himself from the nasty business he’s waist deep in. This is the uninteresting performance. While he looks the part in a suit (you can see where those Bond rumours are coming from), there’s little effort made to pry into the mind at work behind those eyes. He’s just a bad lad who half-heartedly tries to pretend he isn’t. Helgeland’s reach is for nothing more.
And then there’s Ronald. Where to start with this monstrosity? Sounding like Hardy’s Bane doing an impression of Michael Caine, Ron, who had been certified insane and later unwisely released from custody, is presented here with all the restraint and deft judgement of a Little Britain or Harry Enfield sketch. It’s excruciatingly misjudged. Hardy seesaws around scenes like he’s playing Igor in a classic-period horror piece while Helgeland’s script uses Ron as a crutch for some feeble comedy at the expense of mental illness. This is what I’m talking about when I say it’s offensive. Ron is such a caricature as to become, essentially, a piñata for a whole host of negative stereotypes for the conditions he is afflicted with. Now, I’m not saying Ronald Kray particularly deserves better, but the degree that Hardy is urged toward dumb farce here is insulting to everybody in this film’s sphere of influence and effect. I kind of think less of Hardy, an actor I ordinarily very much enjoy, for going along with the choices levied at him here. It’s pretty shameful. And definitely embarrassing.
Elsewhere we have Christopher Eccleston as the detective snapping at their tails, Nipper Read, who is given genuinely nothing to do. Seriously. Keep an eye on his narrative through line in the picture and you’ll wonder why he was included at all. David Thewlis rounds out the main supporting players as the Krays’ doubting lawyer Leslie Payne. He and Browning seem to be the only ones playing this film as though it’s a serious picture. Browning, for the record, probably puts in the finest performance of anyone, but even then it’s within a limited reach of interest, as the film is only vaguely concerned with her character, despite the frankly odd decision to place Frances as the narrator. And while Browning is good on-screen, she is handed shovelfuls of awkward prose to read. There’s some pretty bad writing here.
And the narration is everywhere too, going on for paragraphs, feeding us the information Helgeland could’ve made far more interesting by showing us. You can probably watch Legend with your eyes closed and get a good handle on everything that is portrayed, but that would deny you access to perhaps the film’s only real saving grace.
It looks the business. The sets and exteriors feel period correct. The hair, make-up and costumes all impress (though Hardy’s protruding lower jaw prosthetic as Ron is waggled at the camera a little too much), while some of the camera set-ups are painterly (one misty exterior shot of a car parked beneath autumnal trees lingers in the mind). It recalls slightly the fine-eyed approach of the aforementioned Cronenberg’s Spider. Cronenberg and his director of photography Peter Suschitsky have a long-running history of drawing us into their locations. Legend achieves a similar visual connectivity.
Too bad there’s nothing to see. Helgeland struggles to find dramatic meat in his anecdotal story, making the film’s 131 minute running time feel absolutely punishing. Unless you find any and all accounts of this kind of East End thuggery fascinating you will be bored. And while it’s comparatively refreshing, I suppose, to see Ron’s open homosexuality explored this time around (Medak left it out in 1990, more or less), it’s all for nothing when the rest of the character is presented as a joke. While we’re comparing the films, it’s curious that Helgeland suppresses the Krays’ family here, particularly the domineering mother. One assumes it was to differentiate his film from the former, which felt her presence heavily.
I was going to go with a 2 out of 5 on this for simply being an under-achieving misfire. But the more I think about it, the more irritating it is. Well done, Helgeland, for getting under my skin, I suppose. Too bad it’s for pretty much all the wrong reasons. Legend is a bad movie, poorly constructed. Technically proficient, but crammed with bad decisions. Leave it in the gutter.