Reggie and Ronnie Kray were identical twins, born and brought up in a tough part of London. During the late 1950s and into the 1960s, their criminal gang controlled most of east and central London, and they became men to be feared, though not admired. That is why I have some issue with the title of this biopic, as it implies some status that these sadistic criminals do not deserve. Extortion, intimidation, murder, blackmail, fraud, and corruption are hardly things to be considered the stuff of legend. However, if Jack The Ripper qualifies, then I suppose that the precedent is set.
Their story is well known, at least to most people in the UK. And a very similar film of their activities and background has been done before, in ‘The Krays’ (1990), with twins Gary and Martin Kemp playing the brothers. But that film seemed stagey, the sets felt contrived and lacking authenticity, and the Kemp twins, famous as musicians from the group ‘Spandau Ballet’, did not really impart sufficient gravitas to their roles.
This new film uses one actor to play both of the twins. This could have proved to be a disaster, but director and writer Brian Helgeland made the perfect choice, in Tom Hardy. Hardy does hard men well, and he does London even better. Despite the limitations of over the shoulder shots, and obvious problems when both brothers are in the same room, Hardy brings off the dual roles with conviction, and is believable at all times. Whether portraying the more sensible and occasionally sensitive Reggie, or the bespectacled, lisping homosexual sadist, Ronnie, he manages the balance perfectly.
There is a bonus too. The supporting cast is near-perfect, and seem like they are in period. Some of our best British character actors turn up. Chris Eccleston plays the Scotland Yard detective, Nipper Read, who made it his life’s work to hunt down the gang. Paul Bettany appears briefly as the Kray’s south London opposite number, Charlie Richardson, and the wonderful John Sessions gives an accurate and rather affectionate turn as the Tory peer, Lord Boothby. Strong female roles are provided for Emily Browning, as Frances, the doomed wife of Reggie, and Tara Fitzgerald, who is very convincing as her mother. Chazz Palminteri plays the Mafia connection. Chazz is one of my favourite American actors, but he is almost unrecognisable, as plastic surgery appears to have been his undoing.
But this is undeniably Hardy’s film. He dominates every scene, whichever brother he happens to be at any given time. The nuances that betray the slight differences between the twins are handled to perfection, and there is no slip up, or merging of the two. London in the 1960s is something I know intimately, and it is recreated well here. The cars, the streets, and the interiors of the old houses or modern flats are meticulously rendered. The seedy clubs of the west end might lack some authenticity, but they no longer exist to film in, and this is the only area where the film feels less than convincing. But the pub interiors, cafes, and street market scenes all come with the ring of truth, for anyone who was actually there.
This is a film about violent gangsters, and accordingly has many violent scenes. They are very realistic, and spare the viewer none of the graphic details. A fight with iron bars and knuckle dusters is ouch-inducing, and a vicious stabbing, using a small cocktail knife, is so well done you might think you were in the room. The problem is, who are we supposed to be rooting for? Not the horrible criminals, that is made clear. Not the detectives and policemen, whose bungling and corruption allows the gang to continue their reign of terror. Certainly not the politicians featured, as their lust and cover-ups were tying the hands of the very police officers tasked to catch the Krays. The tragic Frances perhaps, ill-used by Reggie, living a life of broken promises? Well, not really. She knew who he was, and what he was, long before she agreed to go out with him, so should have honestly expected nothing less than what she got.
What the film leaves us with, is a faithful tale of two violent and unpleasant men, and their associates. What they did, how they did it, and what they were prepared to do to keep what they had. If you are interested in this as a piece of history, perhaps know the story, or want to see them get what many considered to be their just desserts, then this might be for you. It is something of a niche film, perhaps more of interest to an audience in the UK, or those of us old enough to remember some of the events. Is it a great film? No. But it is better than some. I watched it for Hardy, and I wasn’t disappointed, at least not by him.
Here’s the trailer.