Tom Hardy has a walk for every character. His shoulders usually feature heavily and directors always do at least one tracking shot from behind Mr H as he ambles / struts / powers along. Legend was no exception – but this time he had a charming east end strut for Reg and a bull like power stance for Ron. Hardy is uniformly excellent as the two Kray twins, channelling Waterfront Brando as Reg and Godfather Brando as Ron – the jaw pushed forward, the way his face was altered by the false teeth. There are moments where you laugh, where his performance of the unhinged Ron walks the line of comedy – shades of Lock Stock in the early pub scene – ‘A shoot out is a fucking shoot out. Like a western’ – but always, always he pulls it back from the brink of caricature. The film stays close up, there is nowhere for Hardy to hide but he makes it remarkably easy for the viewer to forget they are watching one actor.
But I knew Hardy would nail it, so for me it was Emily Browning as Frances (Frankie) that was the surprise. Browning absolutely soars. She has a longer more complicated journey to travel in the film’s running time than the Krays. We meet her as a lemon sherbet sucking, jumper wearing, rebellious young beauty and leave her bruised, addicted to pills and eventually dead in a London high-rise. Frankie’s outfits were a beautiful device to guide us through her demise. Though Reg is appalled that Frankie’s Mum (a heartbreaking performance from Tara Fitzgerald, in early scenes her eyes giving us all of her terror and primal maternal protection in just a few frames) wears black to his wedding, he doesn’t seem to notice when Frankie ditches her bright patterns for black too. When Frankie leaves Reg (a scene which demonstrates the excellence of this film, Ron, who we have become increasingly appalled by wins us back with one line ‘that is not how we were raised‘) she dresses in white and it is that same white dress she dons to escape forever.
Legend has a huge male cast, women are background beauties in 60’s micro minis, smiling vacuously or screaming and running when the world of the Krays get too real, but the few lead performances by women, like Fitzgerald as Frankie’s Mum, are the backbone of this film, building a real world for Hardy to play in. Even with less than 5 minutes of screen time, the Blind Beggar barmaid was a fully rounded character, her shaking terror at the identity parade a triumph. Mrs Kray senior, is first shown at Frankie and Reg’s wedding, then she’s there as the cash is poured into the kitchen sink, overseeing her sons success with a strong matriarchal eye and criticising her new daughter-in-law’s tea skills. The scene after the Blind Beggar shooting was reminiscent of the famous scene in Goodfellas – late night, Mother in her dressing gown, feeding her boys and chatting – but where Scorsese deliberately left his (own) Mother in ignorance of what her son and his friends had done, Mrs Kray is starkly aware. Shot close on Ron’s face, Mrs Kray is all blurred bosom, cosy flannel and tea and cake but again with just a few lines the cliches are shattered as she tells Reg ‘whatever he’s done he’s your brother’. The delivery is clear and simple, this is no oblivious Italian Mamma this is a woman who knows precisely what her psychopathic baby is capable of and knows what she is asking his twin to do.
Like Goodfellas, Legend draws you in to a world which is initially appealing. The opening scenes with Reg offering tea to the coppers who are tailing him, greeting the locals and his light voiced chivalrous charm with Frankie are a joy – Hardy positively twinkles. The colour palate of the film utilises the sharp lines of the tailored suits, against the bricks and gasworks of old London and the old school glamour of the East End. Even the washing on the line seems idyllic, chocolate boxy. It doesn’t take long for the violence and muck to creep in, the mock court of the rival gang drags us right down into the murk, but the film keeps the Kray brothers both terrifying and appealing all the way through, always grey, never black or white. Frankie and Reg’s courtship was a delight, the beautiful slow zoom in the club on their first date, where the music and sound of the club fade and we see and feel what Frankie does, that they are the only two in the room, the world. When Reg proposes, he scales the drainpipe like Romeo but it is Ophelia Frankie evokes for me. Her brother tells us early on ‘she’s been away, she’s fragile’ – Ophelia is a foil for Hamlet, Frankie a fully formed, real person – but that fragility and her breakdown – the parallels are clear. I didn’t know Frankie’s story when I went in, so I got to experience the ‘twist’ (that our narrator would leave us two thirds through the film) others probably won’t experience. It also meant I was rooting for her, we are swept along with her and cannot but help share her triumph as she smiles at her wedding, realising she has won Ron over. This made the fall even harder to take, as the bright colours are switched for black, the charm for loneliness, the sherbet lemons for pills – the subtlety of this switch brought into sharp focus as Frankie takes out her final sherbet lemon and then overdoses. Browning’s eyes are mesmerising, just a touch of 60’s black kohl to frame as we see Frankie’s dawning realisation that she is stuck in the East End forever, her insomnia, the subtle as brick late night game of solitaire and her shrinking joy when Reg cannot teach her to drive her new Triumph.
Though the ‘Does Hamlet rape Ophelia’ theory will always be just a theory, though forever debated, Legend does not leave us in any doubt of why Frankie finally finds enough strength to pack her suitcase. The film’s violent scenes are chosen and edited carefully, we see the smile of disbelief of George Cornell as he realises he’s been shot, every swing of the memorable Kray brothers fight in sharp detail, but for Frankie’s attack the camera just leaves, slowly panning back from the door frame. The image of tiny Browning in her bra and tights utterly rag doll like under Reg’s lift is enough, we don’t need to see more, the fact the camera leaves making this domestic violence somehow more powerful. If, as the film says, everyone in 60’s East End London had a story of the Krays, the film perhaps does a service to all domestic violence victims by leaving the specifics of Frankie’s attack to our imagination, but still keeping it real and relevant. I adored the close up of her eyes as Frankie gets in the taxi, next day, make-up that actually looked slept in, smudged and bruised and starkly real. Some viewers may see Reg’s return of Frankie’s engagement and wedding rings to her dead body as remorseful, regretful – ‘he loved her really’. For me it was his last act of ownership – Frankie escaped but he still brands her even after death, like Hamlet leaping into Ophelia’s grave, these men cannot let their women rest without one last statement ‘she was mine’.
A mesmerising watch, what could have been just a vehicle for Hardy to flex his character acting muscles and a triumph of split screen / layered filming was lifted by all of the supporting cast and the time and space given to let the story unfold. I look forward to seeing Legend again.