Legend: Printed on Both Sides, by David Bax
Tom Hardy plays both leads of Brian Helgeland’s Legend. Or, at least, he plays both male leads; Emily Browning’s Frances, who narrates the film, has an equal claim to protagonist status. Hardy’s performances, as gangster twin brothers Reggie and Ronald Kray, are not differentiated by minute, carefully observed details. On the contrary, the two men sometimes seem to hail from different planets entirely. Somehow, though, this discordance is not a weakness but rather a clue to Helgeland’s cheeky take on his historically true-ish subject matter. He’s less interested in relaying the tale of the Krays as it happened and more interested in the way contrary juxtapositions take root in the storytelling and mythmaking that shape our shared history. The result is almost necessarily derivative of the better films on which Helgeland is commenting – and the film suffers a bit for it – but it remains a fun spin on the gangster movie genre from the same guy who made the nervy A Knight’s Tale.
Reggie and Ronald are already an established East End crime crew when Legend begins. The film’s timeframe is dictated not by their criminal rise and fall but rather by that of Reggie’s relationship with and eventual marriage to Frances, whom he meets in the film’s opening sequence (her brother is a driver for the Krays). As their operations expand, Frances implores Reggie to go straight while the unstable Ronald insists they remain true to their head-busting hooligan ways. The result is a love triangle of sorts.
Helgeland’s most evident employment of tonal juxtaposition is in the cheek-by-jowl arrangement of arch comedy and blunt brutality. We’re given a taste of this early on when we meet rival gang lord Charlie Richardson (an uncredited Paul Bettany), who likes to torture his enemies but not before play-acting as a feathered wig-wearing judge. Helgeland’s laughs-then-violence tactic comes to a head in a pub brawl where Reggie starts by negotiating the room in a manner as clever and verbose as that of an early Guy Ritchie character, urging us to anticipate a similarly stylized approach when the fight inevitably breaks out. Only, when it does, the dented craniums and cracked ribs are stomach-churningly tactile and upsetting in a way that doesn’t match the heretofore fun milieu of the scene.
This mix of theatricality and verisimilitude is not confined to the violent sections of Legend. Helgeland’s version of 1960s London is a riff on the New York City of the early parts of Goodfellas. His locations – narrow streets, modest flats, smoky pubs – have the feel of authenticity but everything bears a new polish, from the perfectly tailored clothes to the sheen of the automobiles to the meticulously reproduced patina of the bar on which Reggie leans while holding court and conducting his business.
All of these subliminal incongruities add up to more than just a structural or aesthetic game. Helgeland is confronting the exaggerations and inconsistencies that take root in the public account of notable events of the past. He did, after all, make a film based on a true story and then name it Legend. History, as we know, is written by the victors. The Krays are just the kind of stubborn and remorseless self-made men to insist on their version of their own past. Most of the film’s heightened reality reflects that. But, as a counterweight, Helgeland puts the actual recountal in the voice of Frances, who (minor spoiler alert) is decidedly not one of the winners of this tale.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance tells us that “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” With his own Legend, Helgeland asks us to examine the transition itself and consider what we risk when we fail to print the facts.