Unless you’ve a particular interest in organized crime in Great Britain or a Spandau Ballet fan, you might not have heard about the Kray Brothers. “Legend” takes a look at the other side of the 1960s pop culture, one that has the gritty glamour of bad boys making it in the club scene and the dissonance of brutal murders.
Brothers Gary Kamp and Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet starred in the 1990 biopic “The Krays.” There are actually three films out in 2015 on the Krays, but you will likely only see “Legend.”
Directed by Brian Helgeland, “Legend” is based on the John Pearson book “The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins” and stars Tom Hardy as both Ronald “Ronnie” Kray and Reginald “Reggie” Kray. The movie is told from the point of view of Reggie Kray’s girlfriend, Frances Shea (Emily Browning) who eventually became his wife.
“It took a lot of love in me to hate him the way I do,” she confesses that there are a lot of lies about the Krays because everyone has a story about the Krays, but she’s not easy with the truth.
The movie details how this tale of terror should have never happened because Ronnie had been incarcerated for three years for causing “grievous bodily harm” and declared mentally unsound so was institutionalized. Yet Ronnie’s brother and friends find a doctor willing to declare Ronnie sane but that doctor informs Reggie that Ronnie is “arbitrary, violent and psychopathic” as well as “probably schizophrenic” and “so desperately in need of reassurance.”
Reggie, then will spend much of his life looking after his mentally unstable brother. This is life on the East End, the poorer, working class side of London where the police are not welcomed, but the gangsters are heroes. The Krays dressed well, they didn’t swear in front of women and they eventually had worked their way into night club ownership. The guests would include the rich and famous and they, too, would become celebrities. Their rivals, the Torture Gang, involve them in a turf war until the head of the gang goes to jail on various charges. Police work should have also put the Krays behind bars, but politics comes into play.
Frances meets Reggie through her brother Frank (Colin Morgan) who is his driver. Reggie is already under surveillance by the police, with the lead man being Leonard “Nipper” Read (Christopher Eccleston). At the time, cars were so scarce that the police car is easily identified, there’s nothing secret. Yet to give the police their due, the surveillance did eventually uncover things about Ronnie.
Ronnie is homosexual in this movie, but in reality, was likely bisexual (Ronnie would marry a woman). Ronnie is out of the closet but not all of London was. He proclivities will at one point save the Krays and make them untouchable: Some surveillance photos could have toppled both sides of the government. Ronnie’s tendencies aren’t portrayed as simply misunderstood as with Alan Turning in “The Imitation Game.” As Ronnie admits quite frankly, he once had a Haitian whom he twisted up like a pretzel and really hurt him. His sexual appetites were more than just love or lust; cruelty was involved.
The police at the time weren’t concerned with that and even the mafia boss (Chazz Palminteri plays the head of a Philadelphia crime family, Angelo Bruno) they make deals with will not appear bothered by Ronnie’s homosexuality. Over his gayness, Ronnie’s madness becomes an increasingly hard to ignore problem. They were brothers and they were twins. As his mother Violet says, “Whatever he’s done, he’s your brother.”
Reggie enjoys being a gangster; he enjoys being a celebrity. To a certain extent, like his brother, he enjoys violence, but his is more contained. Their celebrity would also bring them at odds with their international partners, the American branch of the mafia . If Ronnie Kray’s appetites saves them once, his insanity would eventually break them apart and bring them down. In the epilogue, we learn what happened to the brothers and their end was not one of freedom and wealth.
“Legend” is one of three movies out about the Kray Brothers this year, but the other two (“The Rise of the Kray Brothers” and “The Fall of the Kray Brothers”) are not being widely distributed. While the violence is distasteful, “Legend” has a certain glamour, a style that might help the give the Krays the glow of a well-told myth. Even the ugly parts aren’t grotesquely portrayed. There’s a certain neatness to the violence and the soundtrack is too soothing. Yet Frances is the narrator and she was an East Ender who was according to this movie, seduced by the glamour of rubbing shoulders with the famous. The rich and famous liked the excitement and danger of being with gangsters. The gangster lifestyle blurred the lines of class and being a gangster or a gangster’s girl were perhaps the only ticket for the modestly talented to rise in the world. This is a cautionary tale from the 1960s.