The story: The Kray twins, Reggie and Ronnie (both played by Tom Hardy), are the crime kings of London in the 1960s by being smarter and more brutal than their rivals. They were also cooler; criminals, aristocrats and hipsters flocked to their nightclub. The biopic starts with them as the lords of the East End but through bribery, murder and blackmail, the city is soon laid at their feet. Along the way, Reggie falls in love with Frances (Emily Browning) and marries her.
This biopic cannot figure out what it wants to be, so it samples everything. It illustrates the high points of the Kray's criminal career, Ronnie's fragile hold on reality and Reggie's custodial stance over Ronnie, and the sweetness in Reggie's courtship of Frances.
Over its two-plus hours, the story hops from event to event over several years without finding much to say about anything, except that this or that happened. Quite often, the point of a scene would be to say, "it happened, believe it or not!", when the scene in question features an especially nasty bit of violence.
But oh, the editing. It starts with Frances (Browning) narrating how the twins were "the gangster princes of the city they were meant to conquer", aided by "East Enders who won't talk to the police but will kiss a gangster" before scooting off in three different directions.
REVIEW / DRAMA-THRILLER
132 minutes/Opens tomorrow
American director Brian Helgeland (Payback, 1999) makes it hang together with smart edits, aided by impeccable set dressing, costumes and soundtrack.
This would almost be entirely all about surfaces if not for Hardy's portrayal of the brothers.
Ronnie is the mad one, a paranoid whose first reaction is to over- react. Hardy's Ronnie moves from sinister to jocular to gouge-your- eyes-out flailing in half a heartbeat.
His intensity gives scenes the same edge as would a ticking timebomb or a loaded gun; Reggie fades into the shadows when Ronnie appears. Reggie is left to pick up the pieces, post Ronnie-rage, with the justification that family ties come first.
"Because 'e's my bruvver," he says at one point.
That Hardy plays two men makes you search for the telltale seams, but the framing is too skilful to pick out where the join is, and that game is soon forgotten as the story proceeds.
The film fails in giving the Krays an inner life worth looking into, but it succeeds in telling viewers that they were interesting people, in a period filled with them.