NB: these notes discuss the ending.
The high concept here is casting Tom Hardy as both Kray twins, just as the high concept of The Krays was casting Gary and Martin Kemp in the roles – as expected, perhaps, Hardy is superb as the psychopathic, gay Ronnie and just excellent as the more restrained (at first), ambitious Reggie. The earlier film, which came out 25 years ago (!), concentrated on the boys and their Mum, whereas this comes at the story from the point of view of Frances (Emily Browning), who marries Reggie and narrates even after her suicide (the film doesn’t examine the possibility that she was killed by her estranged husband). Writer-director Brian Helgeland focuses on the brothers and Frances, with the rise-and-fall stuff off to one side – here, Reggie has contradictory desires to become a legit club-owner and society figure while moving into more professional (and profitable) crime via a hook-up with the American mob (repped by Chazz Palmintieri) while Ronnie scuppers both these ambitions, by running the club into the ground while Reggie is serving a prison sentence and impulsively pulling off an old-school shot-in-a-pub murder.
The doom of the Kray Twins was, of course, down to the rule that gangsters who become famous tend not to last long in their professions, and this makes some attempt at evoking the ‘60s celeb style (namedropping Joan Collins and Barbara Windsor and talking up the kinship between the aristocracy and flashy crooks) that Reggie in particular aspired to. An irony is that, according to the version of events set out here, the brothers would have fallen earlier if it weren’t for the fact that Ronnie was involved with gay orgies that also featured government and establishment types who had to be protected from scandal. It’s interestingly cast, with actors who came to prominence in the last wave of Brit gangster flicks in significant roles – Paul Bettany and David Thewlis, the stars of Gangster No. 1, are gangland rival Charlie Richardson and fed-up business manager Leslie Payne, while Christopher Ecccleston, the gunman of Let Him Have It, is now the seething Northern Scotland Yard man on the case. Kevin McNally and John Sessions sit-com it up a bit as Harold Wilson and Lord Boothby, while Sam Spruill makes a squirmy Jack ‘the Hat’ and Colin Morgan serves his time as the brother-in-law. There’s a touch of Dead Ringers in the way Helgeland has the less maniac of the pair follow his wilder brother into insanity when their lives spiral out of control – here, when Ronnie asks why Reggie has stabbed Jack, he is told ‘because I can’t kill you’. Hardy’s Ronnie is such a lookalike that real photos of the crook are used as a prop and you can’t tell and he works a little in his Bronson mode, especially when he is ranting aggressively at club patrons or intimidating others with his weird, quixotic nature and perverse honesty.
There’s a seam of black comedy in the brothers’ love-hate relationship (Ronnie sometimes sounds like Harold Steptoe), which runs to a great (slightly anachronistic?) fight set-up as Reggie deadpans a joke (‘a paranoid schizophrenic walks into a bar’) and Hardy is daring enough to make these monsters funny as a way of undercutting their supposed glamour – even Reggie is as much a lump as he is a social success, and Ronnie is a caravan-squatting lunatic, who wrecks their prospects almost every time he makes a decision. A problem is that Frances’ story is overfamiliar – the stock figure of the gangster’s long-suffering wife just isn’t interesting enough to make the many scenes of her being miserable feel like anything but padding, though there’s a perfect vignette as the seldom-seen Vi Kray (Jane Wood) and Ronnie scorn her attempt to make a nice cup of tea. Other odd things – why such a bland title (okay, that Ridley Scott film is thirty years old – but there’s still likely to be confusion?) and where are the wartime sequences that seem to have been shot (actors are listed in the roles of young Ronnie, Reggie and Violet).