Legend is ultimately a frustrating piece of cinema. Directed by Brian Helgeland, the film is an in-depth look at Ronnie and Reggie Kray, identical twins who became notorious crime-lords in 1960s London.
Tom Hardy bravely takes on the role of both twins, with appearances from Emily Browning as Reggie’s love interest Frances Shea, Christopher Eccleston as the policeman assigned to the Krays’ case, and David Thewlis as the Krays’ crooked lawyer. It can be described as pseudo-biographical, as while many events of the Kray twins’ timeline are represented, Helgeland does not shirk from embellishing history for added impact. This is not a flaw in itself, but is perhaps symptomatic of Legend’s overarching narrative problem.
The film is perhaps overly concerned with doing too much for the audience, as opposed to letting the plotline breathe and speak for itself. Most noticeable, and most jarring, in this regard is Helgeland’s decision to include a voice-over from Browning as a central narrative device. The voice-over comes across as unnecessary and clumsy, and it cannot be ignored that in doing this Helgeland commits the cardinal sin of telling the audience how to feel and think instead of the much more effective method, especially in cinema, of showing them. Browning’s delivery of it is emotionless, seemingly half-hearted, and critically does not add any plot points of real worth to the story – at least, none which could not have been told much more effectively if acted out. It would be unsurprising to learn that this voice-over was tacked on in post-production, in an effort from Helgeland to smooth out elements of the story he believed the audience might struggle in understanding. Unfortunately it does not add anything essential, and rather takes away from what are some of Legend’s best moments.
Indeed, despite what is quite an integral defect, Legend is not completely derailed as a result. This is due in large part to Tom Hardy’s towering double performance, the film’s saving grace. The other actors do their part admirably, but the deficiencies in the writing require Hardy to pull off something remarkable to drag Legend away from being a simply forgettable crime thriller. The only issue I would take with Hardy’s performance is that while Reggie Kray functions as the main protagonist, and his relationship with Frances forms the crux of the plot, it is Hardy’s take on Ronnie Kray which deserves to hog the spotlight – although this is perhaps again down to the writing. As Ronnie Kray, Hardy shows us a violent, unstable, and darkly comic character, whose extreme inner insecurity and emotional turmoil is also beautifully glimpsed at whenever his tough gangster exterior is cracked. In particular, the issues between Ronnie and Reggie, where Reggie must try to contain his brother’s overly violent and unpredictable nature while still maintaining familial loyalty, provide some of the film’s most memorable exchanges, and in this way it becomes clearer and clearer just how important Hardy is to the film — and how much worse off it would be without him. Merely as a written screenplay, Legend is worthy of little attention — the story is in many ways typical of gangster films, and is executed poorly at times. However, Hardy’s imperious double performance invigorates a film which would otherwise fall by the wayside with an exciting air of gritty swagger and intensity.
Is Legend worth the watch? As mentioned before, it is a frustrating film, for the reasons that it could have achieved so much more had the writing measured up to the level of the acting. If you are not an admirer of Hardy’s, then the flaws in Legend’s writing may ultimately prove to be too undermining to the picture’s overall quality. However, if you are an admirer, then it is highly recommended you go see Legend — despite the film’s failings, Hardy’s acting nevertheless shines through, and moreover, to witness him performing so effortlessly well in dual roles makes this a must-see for any dedicated enthusiast. Everyone else, however, is likely to come out feeling disappointed.