Tom Hardy portrays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray in Brian Helgeland’s brutal portrait of the notorious gangsters.
One helping of the London-born leading man, with his imposing physical presence and willingness to delve into the darkest recesses of the human psyche, is usually an emotionally bruising treat. A double dose of Hardy should be an overflowing feast for the senses.
Surprisingly, the neat gimmick of casting the same actor in dual roles proves an almighty distraction.
Using the visual shorthand of a pair of spectacles to distinguish between the two Krays, Hardy plays Ronnie as a blackly humorous psychopath, who seems to be one giggle shy of Jack Nicholson’s Joker. Reggie, as a dutiful son, always puts family ties ahead of personal desires.
“My loyalty to my brother is how I measure myself,” he confides.
Helgeland’s period drama is torn between these two very different faces of the same blood-spattered coin.
Ultimately, the film comes apart at the seams as it lurches between tenderness and lurid violence to lay bare the unshakeable bond between the brothers.
Reggie and identical twin Ronnie own a lucrative club in London, where the rich and famous rub shoulders with bad boys and criminals.
With guidance from business manager Leslie Payne (David Thewlis), the club goes from strength to strength and the brothers entertain a transatlantic union with organised crime boss Meyer Lansky.
“London is going to be the Las Vegas of Europe,” grins Lansky’s associate Angelo Bruno (Chazz Palminteri).
On the mean streets of the capital, the Krays continue a brutal turf war with Charlie Richardson (Paul Bettany) and remain one step ahead of Detective Superintendent Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read (Christopher Eccleston).
Reggie embarks on a giddy romance with 16-year-old Frances Shea (Emily Browning), sister of his driver Frankie (Colin Morgan), despite vociferous protests from her mother (Tara Fitzgerald).
The relationship coincides with Ronnie’s turbulent affair with Edward Smith (Taron Egerton).
Sibling rivalry intensifies and Reggie struggles to contain his brother’s sadistic impulses and keep Frances on an even keel.
Based on the book The Profession of Violence by John Pearson, Legend captures the fashions and sounds of Fifties and Sixties London with aplomb, but the abrupt shifts in pace and tone are deeply discomfiting.
Individually, Hardy’s portrayals of Ronnie and Reggie are fascinating but placed side by side, they induce a cinematic headache.
Supporting cast are similarly torn between understated (Browning) and exaggerated (Egerton), including a colourful turn from John Sessions as a slippery conservative peer, who enjoys the company of young men.
The running time drags in places but it’s hard to tear your eyes from the screen, even when Helgeland’s film seems to be careening wildly out of control.