Life doesn’t follow a three act structure. It’s a problem encountered by anyone trying to make a biopic – where to start, where to finish, how to make reality fit into the cinematic box – with varying degrees of success. Brian Helgeland’s Legend, unfortunately, isn’t a success story.
It’s 1960s London, as we’re informed more than once by a suitably cockney voiceover from Francis (Emily Browning), who serves as the film’s narrator. The Kray twins, who will one day rule the city, aren’t in the best position – Reggie has the police on his tail and is scuffling for dominance with the Richardson brothers, while Ronnie is in a mental institution. Reggie is enchanted by Francis, the sister of one of his drivers, and their relationship plays tag with the gangster plot. Reggie wants to be a respectable club owner, while Ronnie is more taken with the idea of being a gangster – it’s brother vs brother, and brothers against the world.
The film tracks the Krays’ rise from the relative small time to, well, the slightly larger. Certainly, the Krays do end up with a profitable empire and a decent hold on London’s underworld, but there’s a distinct lack of scope in the film that seems ill at ease with the gangster narrative it claims to be. The crimes that the brothers are eventually taken down for feel too light for the tone – fraud, assault, and eventually one murder a piece. The violence of the film is inconsistent as a result – a close quarters showdown in a pub is suitably sickening, but a tiff between the brothers, which should be brutal and even involves a bottle being smashed over Ronnie’s head, is played for laughs.
The film is at its best when it tells the audience what to think – when Francis is first introduced to Ronnie, her palpable fear despite Ronnie’s relative charm gives the best idea of how it felt to live in the East End in the ’60s, and sinks deeper than any of Ronnie’s actual violence. The film also suffers from indecision about its main plot: is it the story of Francis and Reggie, or Reggie and Ronnie? Plot lines vanish and reappear when necessary, and in some cases don’t actually go anywhere.1 Although Francis narrates the film, she is often absent, but when she does appear, her story tends to dominate – there’s almost a feeling that, had Francis been the definitive focus of the film, it would have been a more cohesive narrative. As it is, she is simultaneously all knowing in her narration and unknowing in person.
The performances are decent – while Hardy taking full advantage of a pair of glasses to distinguish the Kray twins, they do feel like separate entities.2 Reggie is charming from the get-go, bringing a cup of tea for the undercover police officers stationed outside his house, but he suffers from inconsistent characterisation in the third act, particularly as he reverts to this charming and sympathetic mode after committing particularly hideous crimes. Emily Browning does her best with the largely thankless role of Francis, whose main job is to occasionally float the idea that Reggie could, y’know, not be a criminal. David Thewlis is a standout as the Krays’ shonky business manager Leslie Payne, and Christopher Eccleston also impresses, as Leonard “Nipper” Read, the dogged detective on the Kray case. Both only appear when it’s convenient to the plot, though – Nipper is introduced in the first scene, but isn’t seen again for almost an hour.
It is, as always, important to draw attention to one of the film’s biggest failings – that no people of colour appear in any speaking role. There are some silent, non-white extras from time to time in Reggie’s clubs, but the film’s cast is entirely, unapologetically white. Considering that the ’50s and ’60s were a period of significant immigration in England, and London in particular, the total lack of any racial diversity in the film is disappointing to say the least. Not only is the film unrealistically white, it is also overwhelmingly male – Francis, her mother, Violet and an unnamed bar maid are the only speaking women in the film, and on the rare occasion that they do speak to one another, it is almost always disapproving. Ronnie’s homosexuality is dealt with inconsistently, most likely as a consequence of the character; one moment his sexuality is a non-issue, the next he is held up as an example of moral corruption and depravity. The film’s brief exploration of domestic violence is also lacklustre, addressing the sort of controlling behaviours that lead to violence but simultaneously casting the perpetrator in a sympathetic light.
Both in purely cinematic terms, and in its predominantly white, male look at history, Legend disappoints.