In revisiting the saga of real-life swinging-London gangsters the Kray twins, Legend has two advantages over 1990's The Krays: Tom Hardy and Tom Hardy. The actor plays both the seething Ronnie and the cooler Reggie, and endows each with more palpable menace than did Gary and Martin Kemp, the prettier boys who starred in the 25-year-old precursor.
Writer-director Brian Helgeland is telling the same story, of course, but with some switches in emphasis. Legend is narrated by Frances Shea (Emily Browning), who was briefly married to Reggie. She becomes the central female character, where The Krays stressed the brothers' perversely indulgent mother. Violet Kray is in this version, too, but has a less memorable role than Frances' mom (Tara Fitzgerald), one of the least joyous mothers-of-the-bride in film history.
Aside from Reggie and Frances' domestic strife, the East End twins battle a rival gang from south of the Thames (its boss played by Paul Bettany) and a police detective (Christopher Eccleston) who's devoted to ending their careers. But the principal conflict is between Reggie, who just wants to run posh casinos and clubs, and the uncontrollable Ronnie.
The latter was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent the last 25 years of his life in a psychiatric facility. He was also bisexual — homosexual, says Legend — at a time when sex between men was illegal in Britain. Ironically, Ronnie may have been protected by his lack of discretion. Recent reports on declassified MI5 files suggest he hosted sex parties whose guests included Robert Lord Boothby, a Conservative party mainstay, but that fear of libel lawsuits deterred journalists from reporting on either man's activities.
As depicted here, Reggie is more circumspect and less inclined toward violence. He's comfortable in the Soho club where he hosts pop stars, fashion photographers (like David Bailey, who inspired the central character in Antonioni's Blowup) and actors (like James Fox, who visited the imprisoned Ronnie while preparing to play a savage gangster in Performance).
Reggie recruits a mild-mannered con man (David Thewlis) as the front for brothers' legit operations, but Ronnie just doesn't trust the guy.
And associates Ronnie doesn't trust have reason to fear.
While this is a British production, Helgeland (scripter of L.A. Confidential and Mystic River) is American. Perhaps that's why he plays up a link to New York mobster Meyer Lansky and introduces a Mafia emissary (Chazz Palminteri). The Yank brings a new source of illicit cash, but is one of several characters who exist primarily to warn Reggie than Ronnie is a threat to the operation.
The brothers may not have been so different, though, either in thought or action. Some of the distinctions Legend draws between the two are fiction. A murder committed by one of the men in the movie, for example, was actually the work of both. (It also, unlike in Helgeland's flamboyant version, did not occur in view of shocked bystanders.)
The sibling antagonism is believable on screen, however, because Hardy makes it so. Reggie smiles and Ronnie grimaces; Reggie speaks and Ronnie grunts. Eventually, the two men come to blows in a scene whose visceral power trumps its CGI trickery.
Too often, Legend relies on glib Hollywoodisms. Its abundant period songs are overly obvious — although Herman's Hermits' syrupy "I'm Into Something Good" does turn tart in this context — and Frances' narration pays unnecessary homage to a 1950s classic.
If her voiceover announces the movie's movie-ness, Legend's central cinematic ploy, the doubling of Hardy, has the opposite effect. It gives this mostly predictable retelling a jolt of anarchy in the U.K.