Since he went supernova with his acclaimed role in “Bronson” in 2008, Tom Hardy has had about as varied a career as an actor could ask for. He’s been a suave shape-shifting mind thief; a used-up ’70s spy; a taciturn, war-scarred MMA fighter; a hulking, masked supervillain; a cardigan-wearing Prohibition bootlegger; a Welsh concrete expert on the longest drive of his life; a softly-spoken Brooklyn bartender; a hipster-bearded Jewish crime boss; a Russian cop; and the maddest Max around. But his greatest challenge might have just arrived, as he has to pull off not just one great performance, but two.
Hardy stars, twice, in “Legend,” a biopic of famous London gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray, previously seen on screen in Peter Medak’s 1990 film “The Krays,” starring the twins from Spandau Ballet. Unlike the previous version, the new film, from writer/director Brian Helgeland (an Oscar winner for co-penning “L.A. Confidential,” and director of “Payback,” “A Knight’s Tale” and “42”), uses visual effects to let one actor, in this case Hardy, play both brothers. It’s certainly a boon to have more than one Hardy, but Helgeland’s film sometimes struggles to deserve him.
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By the time we meet him in the 1960s, Reggie Kray (Tom Hardy) is already a much-feared prince of the London underworld: even with his brother, the unstable, openly gay Ronnie (also Tom Hardy) in a mental hospital, he’s much feared and much respected, and targeted by the police, in the form of Detective Superintendent Nipper Read (Christopher Eccleston). But things are looking up for Reggie: he intimidates a psychiatrist into releasing Ronnie, and he meets a girl.
The girl is Frances Shea (Emily Browning), the teenage sister of his driver Frankie (Colin Morgan), and the two fall head over heels in love. Even as the American Mafia make an alliance with the twins, and they became celebrities mingling with the great and the good, Ronnie’s possessiveness of his brother, and Reggie’s unwillingness to go straight, puts their fledgling relationship in danger.
Helgeland’s way into the story of the Krays comes via Frances, who narrates the story (a little artlessly, though the writer/director pulls a nifty trick late on with the voiceover), and provides the focal point in a not-quite-love-triangle: she tries to pull Reggie away away from the illegitimate life, but he’s so devoted to his brother (who has a love-hate relationship with his sister-in-law) that he can’t quite manage it. Browning, with a faultless East End accent, is mostly strong, the film’s focus on her helping her to give an unusual degree of depth to the kind of character that’s normally background, although Helgeland’s either uninterested or unsuccessful in showing her often-talked about mental fragility, an intriguing parallel with Ronnie, until very late in the game.
Of course, even with a very strong supporting cast (Eccleston, David Thewlis as the Kray’s accounts man, and “Kingsman: The Secret Service” star Taron Egerton, as Ronnie’s psychotic sidekick, being the standouts), it’s Hardy’s show. The work to bring him on screen with himself is mostly seamless (one slightly shonky bit of digital face-replacement aside), and you swiftly stop admiring the trick, and just start to believe in Ronnie and Reggie as people. Remarkably, Hardy’s almost at his best when he’s playing off himself, something that many actors surely dream of, but few are actually able to try.
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It’s a shame, then, that one performance is much stronger than the other. Hardy’s superb as Reggie, with the actor at his most Brando-esque, all simmering sexuality and quiet control, while still being genuinely frightening when he loses it — few actors can switch from deep charm to monstrousness as adeptly, and it works beautifully as Frances falls out of love with her beau.
Surprisingly, it’s the more colorful Ronnie where the dual performance, and the film, falls down. Bulked up, and behind a pair of NHS specs, Hardy and Helgeland mostly play him for comic effect, as a sort of on-the-spectrum, no-filter idiot savant, an ogre whose capacity for violence, sexuality and mental illness are treated as punchlines rather than being delved into. It’s as broad as Hardy’s take on Reggie is subtle, and it’s disappointing that the film never even attempts to get into his head.
There could have been room for that, as well: the film suffers from a sluggish second act (and a slightly-brisker-but-still-sluggish pace), abandoning what little narrative drive there’d been to begin with. Resorting to a sort of “and then this happened, and then this” structure, it feels like it’s overstaying its welcome by the time it reaches the credits at the 130 minute mark.
It does look great, at least: Mike Leigh’s DP Dick Pope gives a pretty retro sheen to the effort, aided by real East End locations and some stellar production design by Tom Conroy. But Helgeland’s direction in general could be most generously described as classic, and less generously as workmanlike—as with “42,” a little more energy or flair could have stopped the film from feeling like a standard biopic in the way that it does.
There are still pleasures to be found: the recreation of the period and world is deeply immersive, and it’s worth the price of admission just to see Hardy’s Reggie performance, which is up among his best work. Still, the story could have perhaps used a more inspired hand at the helm, and it ultimately turns out that two Tom Hardys are not, in fact, better than one. [C+]