With the true-crime tale Legend, an account of the notorious identical-twin gangsters Reginald and Ronald Kray, writer-director Brian Helgeland takes a fresh approach to a problem still plaguing storytellers: giving women meaningful roles in period or genre films more or less unavoidably focused on men. Legend’s multiplex mate In the Heart of the Sea—a 19th-century historical sailing picture—makes a game effort with its pair of wives commenting on the choices of their husbands before and after they set sail, and a similar tack seems apt for a gangland picture set in 1960s London (see also the recent gang picture Black Mass).
Helgeland approaches the problem of what was known in the worse old sexist days as “the girl in the picture” by giving the jobs of narrator and, to some extent, audience surrogate to Frances Shea (Emily Browning), the abused lover of Reggie Kray: “Everyone had a story about the Krays…gangster princes of the city they meant to conquer,” adding of Reggie, “It took a lot of love for me to hate him the way I do.” The more obvious grabber about Legend is that it stars Tom Hardy as not only Reggie but also Ronnie, through the magic of editing and special effects (most special: a scene in which Hardy bloodily brawls with himself).
Using as source material John Pearson’s book The Profession of Violence, Helgeland gets his Goodfellas on with scenes of Reggie holding court at his nightclub Esmeralda’s Barn and a nominal examination of addictive power and ambition, explosively catalyzed by psychopathy, within the criminal element. Legend has the additional Shakespearean element of the twin brothers, mirrored but also contrasted and at odds (Peter Medak’s 1990 The Krays played up the Oedipal angst around the boys’ dotty mother). In Ron, we find bug-eyed madness (from a dream of building a utopian city in Nigeria to his general confusion and lack of self-awareness), and in Reg, we see the banality of evil, perhaps not even aware in any given moment that his assurances and promises to Frances are merely selfish lies.
Hardy runs riot with the challenge of his study in contrasts (though his studied unintelligibility of speech gets compounded by a Cockney dialect). Poised, dapper, heterosexual tenor Reggie can almost live his lie, but shambling, eccentric, squinty, homosexual bass Ronnie alternates between a gaped-mouth simpleness and a perpetual scowl, inspiring the psychiatrist appraisal that he “has no real idea who or what he is.” (Though the real Ronnie seems to have been conflicted about his homosexuality or the public perception of it, Legend has him tell Frances, “I’m a homosexual…You shouldn’t hide what you are.”) Both brothers prove dangerously volatile and capable of murder. Certainly Legend is suffused with menace and, by its final act, existential bleakness.
Unfortunately, it also indulges in the kind of glibness that has infected British crime pictures since the heyday of Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). Helgeland revels in the violence and depravity, setting a dubious tone that, in that final act, has as much of a struggle as Reggie in going straight. Add to that the difficulty of sympathizing with any of the characters, Frances included, and Legend can often feel like an awkward slog.