Friday 30 October 2015

Legend (2015) - Movie Review

In the world of film, there are very few prospects with as high a grade of difficulty as the dual role. On the surface, it’s an actor’s greatest dream: A chance to showcase range within the confines of a single film, be it for comedy like with the cinematic works of Mel Brooks and Monty Python, for dramatic purposes like with the HBO adaptation of Angels In America or even to add a touch of the surreal like with Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. However, this is assuming that all actors are able to maintain multiple personas at once on set, and even then it can just as easily be used for evil as it can for good. One look at the Seltzerberg catalogue shows a ready use of this technique, with frankly embarrassing and nipple-twistingly painful results. A good rule of thumb when attempting this on film is to stick with characters who will naturally look like each other to begin with: Basically, clones or identical twins. As such, today’s film seems to be a decent place to try this out, not to mention bringing in a capable actor for it in the form of Tom Hardy. But intentions are one thing; do they actually pull it off?

The plot: Reggie and Ronnie Kray (Tom Hardy) are the crown princes of the London crime world, with the former serving as the gentleman gangster and the latter as a one-man wrecking crew. As seen through the eyes of Reggie’s wife Frances (Emily Browning), we see their rise to the upper echelons of British gangster legend, the attempts of Detective Read (Christopher Eccleston) to bring them down and the rift that formed between the Krays and their closest allies that eventually led to the twins’ downfall.

I know how much my readers love it when I get all preachy, but it looks like it’s Soapbox Time again. Now, differences between the real-world facts and what makes it on-screen have rarely if ever bothered me because I got it in my head early on that any film based on actual events is bound to take some form of liberty with the source material. I would never be able to catch my breath if I found outrage with every instance of it. That said, I mostly definitely have a problem with what this film has changed from the accounts; namely, the sexuality of the Krays. And no, I’m not going to bring up certain allegations of twincest that have cropped up because I’d rather keep to relatively substantiated notes concerning the two and not halfway house gossip. In real life, Ronnie Kray made it emphatically clear that he was bisexual (even stating quite clearly that he wasn’t gay in The Kray Tapes) and there are reports that Reggie was much the same. In Legend, while Reggie’s orientation isn’t directly stated, Ronnie directly mentions that he is homosexual in his very first scene and makes frequent mention of it from then on.

Now, while I could bring up how this fact kind of dampens his words about being open about what you are, I’d rather delve into the annoying and frankly unsettling precedent that this follows: Cinema’s lack of portrayal of bisexuality. Seriously, while we have been getting depictions of gay and lesbian characters for decades now (for better or for worse), I can think of all of one time that an admitted bisexual character was in a film; that being in 2004’s Dodgeball, and even then the revelation was treated as more of a punchline than anything. It feels like it’s furthering the way of thinking that says bisexuality doesn’t really exist, can be hidden so that it need never be addressed and is mainly a label for someone who is just confused about what they want. Or, to put it in the words of a guy I once chatted up at a bar, “Any hole is not a goal”. It’s patronising and more than a little insensitive, not helped by how invisible the problem seems to be for most people.

Now that that rant is over, and my potential bias for this film is out in the open once again, let’s get into the performances proper for the reality of the situation. Tom Hardy, thankfully, actually takes the time to give both brothers their own presence and identity on screen. As Reggie, his charisma and cool-headedness creates a fantastic straight man, while also depicting his hideous fall from grace at the end of the film and staying in character. As Ronnie, to put it simply, he is pretty much the most awesome thing I’ve seen all year. Seriously, that entire paragraph about my misgivings concerning his sexuality on screen, especially considering how prominent it is within the writing? All of that isn’t nearly enough to detract from just how amazing Hardy is in the role. His air of intimidation on screen, his twisted yet respectable morals and stance of honesty, his manic attitude to his and his brother’s work like someone who grew up obsessed with gangster flicks; this one performance, regardless of what else I have to say about the film, made the entire film for me.

Beyond our high-profile double act, we have Taron Egerton as Ronnie’s boyfriend Teddy, who steals his share of scenes particularly when he's cheering on Ronnie during one of his more impulsive moments, Eccleston does well enough as Read, even if he doesn’t have the best material to work with, and then we have Emily Browning as Frances, effectively our viewpoint character. Now, Emily Browning has a pretty bad track record in terms of filmography: A Series Of Unfortunate Events was average, Sucker Punch was irritating, Sleeping Beauty was boring, The Host was outright infuriating and Pompeii… well, click here for my thoughts on that embarrassing retread. All that in mind, this is already the best film she has been attached to; however, beyond that, it’s also her strongest performance to date as well. Initial credit for pulling off the accent but, as the film progresses and her relationship with Reggie starts to crumble away, the physical and emotional effects of the events around her are quite visible in her performance: More irritable, wasting away, hazed, almost as if she’s sleepwalking through her life but here, unlike almost every other instance of this I’ve seen, it’s intentional and pays off for the most part.

Then we reach the finale, where the film starts to seriously waver. By contrast, this is also where Browning and Hardy as Reggie get their true chance to shine. Now, up to this point, the film has had its fair share of writing problems: The pacing would be off at times, some characters felt like they had a large amount of their scenes cropped out and, even with what we saw of it, not enough screen time was devoted to the specific criminal exploits of the Krays. However, the performances from our cast and mad genius Carter Burwell’s approach to the soundtrack were just that good that it forgave all sins. Then, right near the end, we reach the moment that breaks Franny and Reggie’s relationship for good. Now, while the scene itself leaves a lot to be desired, not the least of which being that it involves a writing trope that just needs to stop without question, the real issue comes from its aftermath.

From here on, the pacing just zooms past the audience’s ears as the actions taken by both Frances and Reggie feel way too sudden all things considered. Not to say that such actions aren’t justified, as they both portray their characters’ respective descents well, but it feels like the film is hurrying to get it all over and done with. It doesn’t help that the narration provided by Frances reaches a point of ridiculousness that I thought was reserved for only the most pretentious schlock out there. In the process, it comes dangerously close to negating all the good work she did in portraying the conflict her character was going through and why she took the actions she did.

All in all, this film has been highlighted for Tom Hardy as the two male leads with damn good reason. Even with how rushed the writing and pacing may be at points, Hardy’s performance along with Browning’s surprisingly good turn makes all of it palatable, especially Hardy as Ronnie whom might be my new favourite character in cinema this year. Given the abnormally strong misgivings I had about this film beforehand, the fact that the subject of my worries ended up bolstering the entire production should prove on its own how amazing the role is.

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