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Posts Tagged ‘Brian Helgeland’

It’s not normally a good sign when you go to see a movie with a friend and can’t decide afterwards exactly what sort of film it was supposed to be. I suppose you could have gone to watch one of those films which sets out to subvert the whole idea of genre, but then those are always a dicey proposition. Generally it just means you’ve spent a couple of hours watching a film with a bit of an identity crisis. This is not inappropriate, now I come to think of it, when we are talking about Brian Helgeland’s vaguely-monickered new movie Legend.

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Legend concerns the lives of the infamous Kray twins, London gangsters of the 1960s, who were notable for being celebrities as well as criminals. This is by no means the first film to be about them, either directly or obliquely, but it has carved out a bit of distinctiveness for itself by using the miracle of modern technology to enable Tom Hardy to play both twins, a challenge he tackles with considerable gusto (maybe a bit too much gusto, but we’ll come back to that).

The movie opens in the early 60s with the Krays rising figures on the London gangland scene, routinely watched by the police (when they’re not actually in prison). Reggie Kray is presented as the brains of the firm, a smooth, plausible-seeming businessman (though not averse to a spot of the old ultra-violence when necessary), while his brother Ronnie, according to the film, is a slightly thick criminally insane maniac. Fairly early on they dispose of their main rivals, the Richardsons, after a gruesomely violent bar brawl, and from then on the city is theirs.

The film is mostly framed by Reggie’s relationship with Frances Shea (Emily Browning), the woman he eventually marries, but covers all the stuff you’d expect a Kray biopic to handle – gang warfare, the Boothby scandal, their connection with the Mafia, the murders of George Cornell and Jack McVitie, and so on. This is, inevitably, the kind of film which concludes with mugshots of the principals and captions relating what happened to them in later life (at the risk of spoilers: an awful lot of porridge).

Helgeland has assembled an impressive, mostly British cast, including Christopher Eccleston, the ever-watchable Paul Bettany, David Thewlis, Tara Fitzgerald, and so on, but the focus is almost always on Tom Hardy. Now, as Reggie, I would say Hardy gives a customarily good performance. The problem is with his turn as Ronnie – it seems to me that playing both characters perhaps allows Hardy to take each a bit further than he would if he were playing only one of them. Or perhaps a good deal further, because as Ronnie he arguably goes way over the top a lot of the time.

There’s rather more Dinsdale Piranha in Hardy’s glazed-eyed performance than is probably a good idea: he makes some rather curious choices, to say the least. ‘What accent is he doing?’ asked the friend of mine I saw Legend with, and I had to confess I had no idea. Is Tom Hardy genuinely playing a real-life convicted murderer for laughs? It’s difficult to say, and that itself is a little disconcerting.

Then again, the whole film is arguably softer on the Krays than it should be – probably more than Peter Medak’s 1990 biopic was. As the title suggests, this paints the twins as glamorous, almost romanticised figures – ‘gangster princes… the city was theirs to conquer,’ gushes the voice-over at one point, while within minutes the film is trotting out that old chestnut that the Krays were lovely boys who only ever hurt their own, and you could leave your front door unlocked in the East End back in the old days… and so on. It’s not until close to the end of a long film that you’re reminded that terrorising witnesses was part of the Krays’ standard procedure, by which point it’s a jarring realisation.

Even so, Legend has apparently been criticised by surviving members of the Kray clan for misrepresenting the twins – particularly the depiction of Reggie brutalising Frances Read, although the film doesn’t make reference to the allegation that Read was actually murdered by Ronnie. Whatever you think of the twins, it’s very difficult to shake the sense that their story has been stretched and twisted to fit Brian Helgeland’s agenda, which appears to be to incorporate some modishly savage gangland violence into an ain’t-those-Brits-quaint-style period piece. I’m not sure the intention justifies the changes – as ever, the morality of making an entertainment out of real life killers strikes me as questionable.

And an entertainment this certainly is. On the way out I asked my companion (who is not well acquainted with British culture or recent history) what kind of film she thought Legend was, and she said she thought it was a dark comedy. I couldn’t honestly disagree, but on the other hand it can’t really avoid being judged as a based-on-true-events crime drama, either. The technical skill and commitment that has gone into the entirety of the film is undeniable, for it is by no means badly made, but – just as with Tom Hardy’s central performances – some of the creative choices that have been made are, to say the least, deeply questionable.

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From the earliest days of the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 20th 2001

When exactly did Hollywood decide the Middle Ages were so filthy? I blame Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Once upon a time we had lovely shiny knights in primary colours, but now every excursion to medieval times seems to take place in a sea of mud with everyone either caked in the stuff or covered in rust. Well, maybe John Boorman’s Excalibur is an honourable exception, but you see my point. It certainly applies to Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale, an enjoyably frivolous movie with a bizarre new take on the genre.

It’s the story of a peasant named William Thatcher (the audibly Australian Heath Ledger). When their noble boss dies of dysentery, he and his fellow commoners hit upon a cunning plan – Ledger enters jousting tournaments (supposedly the most popular leisure activity of the age) using the deceased’s armour, and they all split the prize money. There is of course the drawback that only the nobility are allowed to compete, but fortunately they encounter a down-on-his-luck scribe (Paul Bettany) willing to forge Ledger’s aristocratic credentials. This is supposed to be Geoffrey Chaucer of The Canterbury Tales fame, so listen out for a grinding, rotating sort of noise if you live anywhere near his grave. Ledger is, inevitably, rather successful, and as the tale progresses he meets a beautiful princess (the audibly American Shannyn Sossamon, who can’t act, but is so easy on the eye she doesn’t have to bother) and a suitably wicked villain who wears black all the time (Rufus Sewell).

The pitch for this movie was probably along the lines of ‘Gladiator meets Shakespeare in Love‘ – it has the martial pomposity of the former and the broad humour of the latter. It all takes place in a generic medieval Europe that combines details from Arthurian legend with architecture from the Tudor period, and the end result is about as historically convincing as an episode of The Flintstones. But it doesn’t really need to be as this is no more or less than a fun romp. There are no great surprises or insights but a lot of good jokes and the odd touching moment. There’s rock-solid thesping support from Mark Addy as a squire, Bettany’s performance as Chaucer is witty, and Laura Fraser is good as a female blacksmith who joins the gang. If it has a real flaw, it’s that one joust looks very much like another and the director runs out of original ways to film them quite early on. I enjoyed it a lot, far more than I expected to, as I only wound up going to see it because the cinema wasn’t showing Rush Hour 2.

Not long after, I trundled along to see Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, and the two films have a good deal in common. Like A Knight’s Tale, Moulin Rouge is a period piece, and also like A Knight’s Tale, it features a supposedly historical character in a supporting role. It’s the story of naive young writer Christian (Ewan McGregor in his best role for some time), who in the year 1900 moves to Paris. He befriends a group of Bohemian artists, including Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo) – that’ll be another spinning celebrity corpse, then – who want to put on a show at the famous (and titular) Moulin Rouge nightspot, run by Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent). A misunderstanding during a visit to the club leads to Christian and star attraction Satine (a glacially beautiful Nicole Kidman) falling in love, after she initially mistakes him for a rich Duke who’s considering financing the refurbishment of the club. When the real Duke (Richard Roxburgh, who does a pretty good impression of the late Terry-Thomas) turns up he agrees to stump up the cash provided he gets, ahem, exclusive access to Satine, if you follow my meaning. Will true love triumph?

Moulin Rouge is, and let’s be honest about this, completely insane. This being a Baz Luhrman film, restraint and naturalism were escorted from the cinema before the opening credits rolled. For the first twenty minutes I felt pinned back into my seat by the overwhelming, frenetic audio-visual onslaught – crash zooms, jump-cuts, slo-mo, freeze frames, crane shots, mixes, Luhrman uses them all – but eventually either the film calmed down a bit or I acclimatised to it. Probably the latter, with hindsight, as the story slowly changes from broad farce to tragic melodrama as it goes on, the transition being flawlessly executed. It’s all been art-directed to within an inch of its life, zips along with elan to spare, and in its early stages is often very funny. Most of the jokes are broad, though, and many of the laughs come from deliberate incongruities – when McGregor starts singing the theme to The Sound of Music, or Kylie Minogue’s cameo as the Absinthe fairy (barely credibly, she’s dubbed by metal legend Ozzy Osbourne).

This use of deliberate anachronism is the most striking similarity between A Knight’s Tale and Moulin Rouge. In A Knight’s Tale it takes a number of forms – at the ‘Jousting World Championships’ all the peasants behave like football supporters. Chaucer, as a herald, hypes up his master as if he’s a WWF wrestler. Several contemporary songs feature on the soundtrack. My favourite moment of the movie is a deliriously exuberant sequence at a banquet where everyone starts gettin’ on down to David Bowie’s Golden Years. But in the end it’s just a device to boost the fun quotient in a film that has absolutely no aspirations to be taken seriously.

There are lots of pop songs in Moulin Rouge too, deliberately famous ones – songs by Elton John, by Queen, by Nirvana, and – once again – by Bowie, who should have a good week on the royalties front. We get to see Jim Broadbent in a ginger shock-wig and (one hopes) padded fat-suit doing a full-on song and dance version of Madonna’s Like A Virgin, for example – just take a moment to mull that image over. Admittedly, the musical director appears to have been Darius from Popstars, so weird are some of the arrangements, but these are still familiar, stirring tunes, and, crucially, they’re central to the story’s development. However, the reason for their use, as opposed to a more conventional means of character development, is unclear. Is Luhrman trying to say something about the power of popular song? Is it a strange emotional shorthand? Is it an attempt to draw parallels between the decadence of the Moulin Rouge and that of our own society? Or is it just done purely for laughs and novelty value? It’s really impossible to tell. More importantly, so studiously artificial is the conceit, along with the rest of the setting, that it creates a real distance between audience and story. This is by no means a bad film; it’s visually astonishing, the performances are great, and the music’s often stirring – but it’s very hard to engage with the characters and story on an emotional level. One is left with a whirling, staggering, multicoloured dervish that captivates the senses but doesn’t stir the passions. Like one of its’ characters, Moulin Rouge is beautiful, but with a cold heart. This was probably inevitable, but it’s still a shame.

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