Film Review | Legend

Tom Hardy does a bravura turn as he embodies both of the infamous 'Kray' twins who terrorised the London streets during the Swinging Sixties, but Brian Helgeland's film struggles to transcend stultified gangster movie cliches

Krays anatomised: Tom Hardy does double duty as he takes on the role/s of the notorious London gangster siblings Reggie and Ronnie Kray
Krays anatomised: Tom Hardy does double duty as he takes on the role/s of the notorious London gangster siblings Reggie and Ronnie Kray

Tom Hardy is hot property right now – not least thanks to the stratospheric critical and commercial success of Mad Max: Fury Road – and British gangster drama has been hot property from around the time Michael Caine sneered and shot his way through Get Carter (1971). Put that all together with the glamorous trappings of a true crime epic set in the Swinging London milieu, and you’ve got yourself a sure-fire winner.


Well, not wrong necessarily but… as screenwriter-turned-director Brian Helgeland brings the admittedly ready-made story to the screen, some wrinkles in this otherwise hard-pressed Savile Row suit of a film refuse to flatten.

Telling the story of notorious gangster siblings Reggie and Ronnie Kray (both played by Tom Hardy), who both charmed and terrorized London’s East End in the 50s and 60s, Helgeland’s film focuses on the latter part of the infamous twins’ criminal career, charting in particular Reggie’s attempts to go ‘straight’ after he meets the love of his life, Frances Shea (Emily Browning) and the drama that ensues as his brother – defiantly homosexual in a time when this was far from the norm, as well as being mentally unstable – threatens to topple their little empire by dint of his paranoid delusions and violent outbursts.


Based on the book The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins by John Pearson, the film is narrated through the voice of Frances Shea, and as well as being framed by her relationship with Reggie, it also focuses on the – often frustrated – police investigation into the Krays by Scotland Yard’s dogged Inspector Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read (Christopher Eccleston).

First things first: the double-trouble bravura turn by Tom Hardy. Perhaps many will rush to congratulate the evident thespian labour involved in bringing two characters to life concurrently – perhaps even more so when you’re supposed to portray brothers who exhibit subtle gradations of similarity and difference at equal turn.

But more than anything, the impression one gets is all about how Hardy is clearly just having a blast.

His outré characterization of the adequately manic Ronald Kray in particular will come as no surprise to those who saw him in what is arguably his breakout role, in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson (2008) – a blackly comic and formally playful biopic of Britain’s most notorious inmate.

But Legend is a different beast – that is, a far more conservative one. The familiar beats of initial – ruthlessly guarded – success, consistent internal drama and inevitable downfall are present and accounted for, and if the otherwise engaging-enough drama flags it’s because Helgeland, also serving as screenwriter, tries to cover too much ground – a common enough problem with most biopics.

It also basks comfortably in the glamorous trappings of the story, and will appeal to all lovers of Swinging Sixties London nostalgia. This also means that it doesn’t particularly challenge the accepted narrative of the Krays and their mythology, and gives us what we want with bullet-pointed (pun not intended) efficiency.

In this sense, the doll-like Emily Browning is tragically suited to her role. Though her narration creates the impression that she has ownership over her story, and a degree of self-awareness about the flawed subjects she’s introduced us to, Frances never quite succeeds in contradicting her mother (Tara Fitzgerald)’s appraisal of her as a gold-digging tart. 

Still, Helgeland manages to hold the whole thing together, presenting the historical arc of the story with a decent-enough clarity, and using composite characters and situations to good effect when necessary. If Legend is worth watching, it’s because Hardy’s impeccably entertaining double-performance is a welcome dollop of madcap gravy over a solid but otherwise forgettable slab of gangster movie beef. 

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