Biopics can so often work best when the audience embodies the perspective of an outside source: somebody peering in, working as a catalyst of sorts into a remarkable set of events. Take the forthcoming Life – looking at James Dean, or The End of the Tour – focusing on writer David Foster Wallace: both excellent features look at the protagonist from a photographer’s and journalist’s perspective, respectively. Brian Helgeland’s Legend – depicting the notorious Kray twins and their self-made empire that shook the streets of London in the 50s and 60s – seems to have taken a similar approach, using Reginald’s wife Frances Shea as our entry point; but any such ingenuity in that regard is soon displaced, as the character blends into the background, and the brothers take precedence – to the film’s detriment.
Emily Browning plays Frances, who falls in love with Reginald Kray – portrayed by Tom Hardy, who is the smarter, seemingly more controlled counterpart to his erratic, violently inclined twin brother Ronald (also played by Hardy). However as their reputation across London grows more infamous, and they become so feared, their conflicting sensibilities begin to merge, blurring the line between who is the more sensible twin, and who is the more irrational.
Helgeland is attempting to be stylistic, but feels contrived in his efforts. Though evidently taking pointers from the likes of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, as well as Bronson in that regard, the filmmaker is attempting to have his cake and eat it by wanting to be naturalistic and gritty at the same time, instead resulting in a picture that revels in neither. There’s a distinct emphasis on the aesthetic and tone, but as such we lose the nuances of the characters, which is essential in a film that requires the viewer to differentiate between the two leads at all times. But thankfully an accomplished turn by Hardy ensures this isn’t a big problem, conveying the roles in a patent, and yet subtle manner – as we always know, just from a mere glance, who he is portraying (though to be fair, Ronald’s glasses are something of a giveaway). That being said, his performance as Reginald is significantly better, as Hardy manages to be one of the only actors to have ever put in both a superb performance and a mediocre performance – in the very same movie.
But where this picture suffers is within the lack of focus, as we need to put our energy into one element of the Kray twin’s story, be it Frances, or the tumultuous relationship between the siblings. But instead Helgeland attempts to offer a broad outlook into their reign of fear, becoming a mere jack of all trades, and regrettably, a master of none.