Legend: Tom Hardy's double take dilutes the story of the Kray twins
Ron’s escape from hospital was more ingenious, Reg’s marriage less violent … Tom Hardy’s portrayal of both twins is admirable, unlike the film’s attention to detail
Reginald and Ronald Kray were twins born in 1933. They were East End toughs who became gangsters. By the 60s, they were rubbing shoulders (and allegedly more) with politicians and celebrities.
The film begins with Ron (Tom Hardy, excellent) incarcerated in Long Grove mental hospital. Reg (also Tom Hardy, also excellent) finds a psychiatrist, and has him threatened into certifying Ron sane. Strangely, this is much less inventive than what happened in real life, according to the Krays’ biographer John Pearson, on whose book, The Profession of Violence, Legend is based. Ron was unhappy in Long Grove. His only friend was a radiator – “It was warm,” he explained – and he became convinced that one of his fellow patients was a dog. The twins arranged to wear the same clothes when Reg came to visit: a dark blue suit and red tie. Reg arrived with an overcoat over the top to make it less obvious. Then the two picked a moment to switch places: Ron, pretending to be Reg, told the nurse he was going to the hospital scullery to fetch some tea – and walked out to a waiting car. Reg waited for enough time to pass, then proved his true identity with his driving licence. The brothers paid, rather than threatened, a psychiatrist to certify Ron.
In the film, Ron is openly gay while Reg falls in love with Frances Shea (Emily Browning). In real life, both brothers were bisexual; Ron predominantly homosexual. According to one of Pearson’s books, the relationship between Frances and Reg hit its first crisis when Reg tried to rape Frances’s brother, Frank – an alleged incident that does not appear in the film. The movie sets up its narrative so that Ron is the paranoid schizophrenic and Reg is rational. It’s certainly true that many people found Reg the less terrifying of the two, but both men were violent and unstable from the beginning.
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Ron carouses in London’s gay underworld, making friends – and perhaps more – with Conservative peer Lord Boothby. The true nature of Boothby’s relationship with Ron Kray is difficult to establish: letters and witnesses attest that they were close, but Boothby received a substantial libel payout from a newspaper after it linked the two of them. The film goes with Pearson’s maximally lurid account, wherein both Boothby and the Labour politician Tom Driberg were said to be guests at fetish-filled orgies in Ron’s flat at Cedra Court, Clapton. Ron was known on the gay scene as “the Queen Mother”. The Krays’ gang, like the royal family, was called The Firm.
Despite a perfectly decent performance by Browning, Frances comes across as a bland and forgettable ingenue: there’s little of the spark that enraptured Reg in real life. It’s a pity the filmmakers haven’t given her more to work with, especially as her story frames the entire movie. In the film, Reg and Frances’s eight-week marriage falls apart when he beats her up and rapes her. In real life, Frances insisted Reg was never physically violent towards her. Several friends of theirs have corroborated this. According to John Pearson, Reg’s intimidation of Frances was psychological: he talked about killing her, her brother and her parents and brandished his gun. Knowing she was afraid of the sight of blood, he cut his own hand and dripped blood all over her as she slept. The film wants to contrast Reg’s sanity with Ron’s insanity, but Reg really wasn’t all that sane. Furthermore, it’s lazy and cliched to use rape as a plot device – especially when it didn’t happen and the reality is so much weirder.
The film depicts both murders for which the Krays were convicted in 1969: Ron’s murder of George Cornell (for which John Barrie was also convicted), and Reg and Ron’s murder of Jack “The Hat” McVitie (for which Ronald Bender and brothers Christopher and Anthony Lambrianou were also convicted). The execution of Cornell at the Blind Beggar pub is depicted more or less accurately, with Ron marching in and shooting him point-blank in the forehead. The location chosen for the pub makes it look as if it is on a quiet back street. In fact, the Blind Beggar opens straight on to the thoroughfare of Whitechapel Road, making Ron’s action even more brazen. The film creates an explanation for this murder, though the real motive remains a mystery. Pearson dismissed the idea there was any “war” against the Richardsons, another London gangster family.
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Legend’s depiction of the murder of Jack McVitie is even more questionable – changed to fit with its inaccurate contentions, first, that Reg was sane, and second, that Ron and Reg fell out permanently over Frances. Onscreen, Reg suddenly turns on Jack at a party, stabbing him in a frenzy and then hissing in Ron’s ear that he did it to Jack because he couldn’t do it to him. In real life, McVitie was lured to the basement flat in Stoke Newington by both brothers. They cleared all the women out of the party first, then Ron egged Reg on to kill McVitie – even helping to hold him down while Reg repeatedly stabbed him with a carving knife. The film does its best to invent Greek tragedy-style conflict between the brothers, but as their friend Maureen Flanagan says: “These weren’t two people, they were one person.”
Tom Hardy is great as the Kray twins, and brings enough wit and menace to both parts to make Legend an enjoyable watch. Without him, though, this would be thin gruel.