As we approach the 9 September release of hotly anticipated Tom Hardy double-helping Legend, in which the actor plays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the BFI Southbank last night treated a packed house to the film that got there first: Peter Medak’s dark and disturbing gangland opus The Krays.
Unleashed upon an unsuspecting public a quarter of a century ago, Medak’s film memorably featured Spandau Ballet brothers Gary and Martin Kemp as London’s lordly, evil twins – Ronnie and Reggie, respectively – along with Billie Whitelaw as their mother Violet, and Kate Hardie as the doomed Frances, who married Reg in 1965 and took her own life as the role of moll took its toll.
This much is true: the Kemps themselves attended the screening, along with Hardie, Medak and screenwriter Philip Ridley – whose personal take on the Krays’ life story set the ball rolling on a true-crime drama that marched biopic and thriller conventions at knifepoint down an unusual, and grimly poetic, alley.
Shown on a gorgeously preserved, 35mm print that crackled only during the reel changes, The Krays effortlessly confirmed its credentials as a masterpiece – one that stands shoulder to shoulder with the imposing likes of Get Carter (1971), The Long Good Friday (1980) and Mona Lisa (1986) in the UK’s pantheon of top-notch, post-war crime epics.
Yet importantly, while it shares a quality benchmark with those films, it is also at one remove – coming across far more as a horror movie in its oppressive and often claustrophobic tone. From the lengthy and austere, white-on-black opening credits (not unlike those at the beginning of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser), to the late, great Michael Kamen’s morbid score, to the casting of Whitelaw – best known for playing the antichrist’s nanny, Mrs Blaylock, in The Omen (1976) – The Krays is vividly in thrall to horror traits and tropes, which conspire to detach it from literal reality.
In just one of many sinister quirks, Ridley brackets the film with a soliloquy from Violet relating a dream she once had, in which she was a swan that could soar higher and higher with no limits or boundaries. In that dream, she says, she had an egg, and heard noises coming from inside it – noises that proved to be the sounds of children’s voices. “I looked after this egg and kept it safe,” she goes on, “until one day there was a hatching sound. And out came two boys, and they were mine… and they were wonderful… and they were perfect.”
The first mention of Violet’s dream feeds into the twins’ symbiotic boyhood. Born in the early 1930s and destined to grow up amid the terror of the Second World War, the young Krays are often shown finishing each other’s sentences, speaking in unison and – chiming with Violet’s vision – saying that they’ve had the same dreams, and experienced them together. This angle on the material has far more in common with the eerie cloud that coalesced around Jeremy Irons and, um, Jeremy Irons in David Cronenberg’s 1988 tour de force Dead Ringers, than the more directly thuggish attitude conveyed by Bob Hoskins’ garrulous Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday – although thuggishness inevitably becomes a key ingredient later on.
We also have the lurking spectre of “The Scottish Play”, with the twins’ grandmother Helen (Avis Bunnage), and their aunts Rose (Susan Fleetwood) and May (Charlotte Cornwell), comprising a coven-like trio that presides over every family gathering. In parallel, Violet and Frances share various characteristics of Lady Macbeth, while the Kemps express the paranoid Thane as one person, stretched between two, separate bodies. The influence of female figures on the twins’ lives and shared outlook is the barbed, iron spine and central nervous system of Ridley’s drumhead-tight script.
Claret splashes in abundance in the film’s violent set pieces, adding a guignol grandeur to proceedings that by turns burnishes the twins’ mythic status and yet unseats any notions of glamourisation. It is impossible to walk away from the film with any feeling other than that the Krays were nasty, vicious bastards who made as much of themselves as they could through the folkloric grapevine, but whose egos ultimately wrote scores of cheques that their business empire could never quite cash. Fear and intimidation filled in the gaps, and the tall stories fed themselves.
Impressively, Ridley and Medak situate the audience firmly in the Krays’ camp, without cutting to parallel narratives of how their enemies-to-be made their names in the London underworld. As a result, when the twins’ disproportionate feuds with small-time irritants George Cornell (Steven Berkoff) and Jack “The Hat” McVitie (Tom Bell) arise, they come from out of nowhere – almost like that horrible, uneasy feeling you may have in a pub when someone standing nearby suddenly seems to have a problem with you for no apparent reason. There is never any attempt to trace the roots of the disagreements, and their unaccountability – coupled with their pettiness – offers chilling insights into the frightening snap judgments of the psychopathic mind.
Amid this charnel house dressed up as a classy nightclub, there’s Hardie’s heart-wrenching portrayal of Frances, who rushes into a marriage with Reggie after meeting him at one of the twins’ clubs (in reality, they started dating when she was 16 and married several years later), then succumbs to detachment and depression as her spouse campaigns to destroy her individuality. Only in a single scene, where Frances and Reggie are on their honeymoon, does she enjoy a chink of happiness – but that is cut all-too short as a messenger from London arrives to tell Reg of Aunt Rose’s death. When Frances slips off to oblivion on the back of an overdose, even the honeymoon imagery is nightmarishly repurposed to give a sense of the numbing fear in which she ended her life.
A film that has aged like one of Ron’s favourite single malts, The Krays is a high watermark of UK-based production, and a troubling comment on the kind of forces that post-war desperation compelled Londoners to latch on to and sweep to undeserved fame.
The Krays, it emerged, had more than just two rock stars in the driving seat. As Gary explained, the rights to the twins’ life story were actually held by The Who’s frontman, Roger Daltrey, who had already tried to convert those assets into a film. Aware of Daltrey’s struggle, Spandau’s appropriately named manager, Steve Dagger, set up a rumour in the late 80s that Gary and Martin were going to play the Krays. Before long, a rock-video production house that the band worked with got in on the act – and so, in turn, did Daltrey. At last, the nucleus of the film was in place.
However, there was one particularly vital step to cover before pre-production could begin in earnest. “We got the blessing of the family – which was what the insurers really wanted,” Gary only half-joked. The clincher, he recalled, was “when we went to see [Ronnie and Reggie’s elder sibling] Charlie, and he did a double-take and said, ‘I thought it was me own, two brothers there.’”
In an aside, Martin let the audience in on the family’s approach to grudges. “We went round to Aunt May’s house,” he said, “and lots of the pictures on her walls had people’s faces cut out of them. She told me: ‘They’re the ones that turned evidence.’”
When it came to the writing process, Ridley – who had penned short stories, children’s books and radio plays and was known to Spandau’s bohemian circle – had only to tap into his own experience of growing up in Bethnal Green: the twins’ wellspring, and a place where they exerted a powerful hold upon local imaginations. An urban folk tale about the Krays mercilessly driving a car back and forth over some luckless foe’s head, said Ridley with a wink, “really delighted a seven-year-old boy”, and promptly lodged in his mind.
He also confirmed that he “grew up with horror films – that’s my whole language”, and said that, for him, the most important line in the film is “England is a dream” – spoken by a visiting US gangster as he toasts a deal with the twins. “Whether or not you did or didn’t do something,” Ridley mused, “people will believe it.” On that basis, he revealed, the poetic approach he wanted to take with the script was a hard sell for everybody on the financial end of the equation. “Everyone had in their mind an idea of what a film about the Krays should be – as in, opening in Bethnal Green with someone getting their head smashed into the road,” he said. “I just wasn’t interested in that.”
Ridley also imposed a “no police” rule to prevent the screenplay from turning into a rote, cause-and-effect procedural, and then bunkered down to produce for the backers an outline of what he considered to be the most effective approach to the script. That included beginning with Violet’s swan dream, which had stemmed from a viral anecdote, then going into the first chunk of the twins’ childhood, before plunging into what he freely admitted was “a rejigging of factual events” that he slotted together “like a jigsaw puzzle”. Once Ridley had decided which episodes he wanted to focus on, he said, “I could mould them into an order that made for a satisfying narrative.”
That led to a few contentious clashes with reality, such as positioning Frances’ death as a trigger for the murders of Cornell and McVitie – which wasn’t actually the case – and depicting the murders as though they had taken place on the same night, when in fact they had occurred years apart. Convinced by the strength of Ridley’s personal vision, the backers farmed out the script, and Medak – who had known the Krays in the early stages of his filmmaking career – gradually overcame his distaste for the subject matter and came onboard as director.
With the Kemps already in the frame, Medak reminded them during the talk, “I did a lot of looking into both of your hearts and wondering whether you could really do it”. But their chemistry before the cameras was undeniable, especially during the film’s standout boxing scene, which – according to Gary – found the twins in both fictional and personal modes “beating the shit out of each other”. Martin confirmed: “The fights went on and on – there were lots of old scores to settle,” adding that production staff who were meant to get them ready for Medak’s setups just ended up leaving them to it until they ran out of batteries.
However, away from such testosterone-fuelled tales, perhaps the most penetrating insight into the film came from Hardie, who said that, as she’d rewatched the film alongside the evening’s audience, what had struck her the most was that Ridley’s script “was really amazing for women”, in terms of the prominence it had given to the twins’ mother, grandmother and aunts – together with Frances’ tragic arc. Sight unseen of Legend, Hardie nonetheless said it was “depressing” that, if the film were made today, “most of the women would be standing on the sidelines with just a line, and it would be all about the blokes”. Hardie went on to mourn the passing of an era in which a film could blend action with an intensely female perspective, and successfully attract funding.
As for whether Legend will confirm Hardie’s suspicions, there’s less than a fortnight to go before we can all find out. But it is a film that will walk in a pair of very long, and very dark, shadows.
Over to you, Mr Hardy. And, um, Mr Hardy.
Words> Matt Packer
Below pic: the panel, L-R – Martin Kemp, Gary Kemp, Kate Hardie, Peter Medak, Philip Ridley, and compere Danny Leigh