“I have no regrets,” Reggie Kray once said, in an interview shortly before his death.”My brother didn’t have any either. I would not change anything. You can’t just select parts of your life and alter them.”
You can, of course, if you are a Hollywood director. Brian Helgeland, a veteran of crime cinema, has here created a raucously entertaining take on the enduring Kray legend, though whether it bears much resemblance to the real-life Krays is open to debate.
The story of the East End brothers is pretty well known by this point (there are at least two other Kray-based films due out this year alone) so Helgeland wisely dives straight into the action.
We skip the brothers’ early life as amateur boxers, their prison time in the Tower of London, and their brief stint getting conscripted into, and dishonourably discharged from, the military.
This is a Swinging Sixties movie, so it begins, appropriately enough, in 1960. Reggie Kray (Hardy) is already a successful nightclub owner and ‘legitimate businessman’, finding time between running protection rackets and armed robberies to court a teenage Frances Shea (Browning), his future wife and our narrator.
Meanwhile, twin brother Ronnie (also Hardy) has just been released from a psychiatric hospital and is, as a doctor sensitively warns, “off his rocker”.
In both roles, Hardy is at the top of his game, inserting a seamless technical and emotional distinction between the two. Reg is louche, cool, and a little impatient; Ron, on the other hand, is the loosest of cannons, his permanent scowl never far from exploding.
There’s a sprawling, Scorsesian feel to the whole thing. It follows a well-hooved mob movie structure, revelling in the glamour and good times of the early years before conceding that a life of crime is probably unsustainable.
It’s rich in sharp suits and sizzling soundtracks. It even has a Goodfellas-style tracking shot, with a steadicam hovering behind Hardy as he greets club regulars, in manner not unlike Henry Hill.
What’s surprising, perhaps, is how funny it is. Helgeland finds opportunities for gallows humour in abundance, especially in Ronnie’s incongruous tastes (violence/westerns/orgies with aristocrats). It contrasts starkly with previous takes on the story – like the 1990 Spandau Ballet-starring biopic The Krays – which seemed keener to emphasise that both brothers were, by all historical accounts, psychopaths.
Helgeland’s take – essentially, that Reggie was a romantic who wanted to go straight, were it not for his brother – is perhaps a slightly generous assessment of a convicted murderer.
But the title lays clues to its intentions. As a historical account, it’s problematic; as a vibrant slice of period fiction, it’s boisterously, bruisingly great.