Capsule Review: Legend (2015, Brian Helgeland)

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This piece was written in September 2015 for the first and only issue of a magazine published by the University of Kent’s School of Arts. It’s a decent review, so I thought it would be worth republishing here.

Legend, singular. This title is not an accolade this biopic bestows upon either Ronnie (Tom Hardy, straining) or Reggie Kray (Tom Hardy, excellent), the twin doyens of organised crime in London’s East End during the 1950s and ‘60s, but is instead an acknowledgement that the film dramatises the mythology surrounding them both. Indeed, writer-director Brian Helgeland wisely bypasses wearisome backstory and begins the film when the Krays were already immersed in the process of creating their legend of inter-gang rivalries, ruthless violence, and living large with Britain’s most illustrious celebrities. It follows, then, that Legend is an entirely romanticised formal construction, one that erects a distorted façade around the slightest semblance of historical fact in order to create something resembling slick entertainment. As real as the Krays and their crimes were, Helgeland’s direction is more concerned with luxuriating in the comforting, glossy artificiality of garishly lit sets, flamboyant camera movements, and myriad familiar gangster movie signifiers.

All of which could have been palatable had Helgeland committed to the artifice on a deeper level, critiqued our cultural fascination with the Krays by giving us exactly what we want à la Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (in essence saying we allowed them to thrive because we love watching them). But while Legend’s surface details tell one story, Helgeland’s script tells several as it inexplicably dithers between uncovering the ugly private lives behind the legend – Reggie’s relationship with his wife Frances Shae (Emily Browning, who provides the film’s execrable voice-over), his fractious sibling rivalry with Ronnie, etc. – and delighting in the various public exploits that secured their place within Britain’s cultural mythology. Legend is therefore entirely bereft of focus, an interminable two-hour muddle that depicts terrible people in a superficial and unquestioning manner because it cannot decide between affirming and dispelling their legend.

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