There are two good reasons to make what might otherwise seem an inessential new biopic of Ronnie and Reggie Kray — and both of them, as it happens, take the formidable form of Tom Hardy. Playing both the infamously savage Cockney crime lords in a dazzling feat of thespian self-splicing to rival Jeremy Irons in “Dead Ringers,” Hardy’s inspired twin turn elevates and complicates the otherwise straightforward terrain of “Legend,” in which U.S. writer-helmer Brian Helgeland gives London’s East End gangland a slightly touristic candy-coating of Swinging ’60s glamor. While Helgeland’s script lacks the wit and grit of his Oscar-winning job on “L.A. Confidential,” this lengthy, engrossing underworld saga creditably attempts to work a female perspective — that of Reggie’s innocent wife, Frances — into these laddish proceedings. If the Hardy Boys’ film-swallowing contribution ultimately thwarts the effort, that can’t be helped.
Given an enduring local fascination with the Brothers Kray, business should boom in Blighty, where the pic opens ahead of its international premiere in Toronto. In the U.S., “Legend” may viably be marketed two ways by the currently indomitable Universal: as a lavishly violent genre outing and as a more prestigious awards vehicle for its duplicated leading man. Interestingly, Hardy’s own performance splits along comparable lines. His Reggie is a suave, charismatically volatile antihero calculated to inspire perverse admiration among younger male auds; his playfully eccentric inhabitation of the gay, mentally unstable Ronnie would, on its own, rep the more extravagant bid for thespian kudos. That both these distinct achievements — the work of a vital movie star and a resourceful character actor, respectively — are contained within a single performance is, of course, its true marvel. The illusion is achieved so fluidly and separably that the practicalities of the stunt are soon forgotten.
As a performance showcase, then, “Legend” is more sensational than Peter Medak’s meaner, muddier 1990 biopic “The Krays,” which nonetheless boasted fine work from New Romantic balladeers Gary and Martin Kemp. It’s less satisfying as psychological profile: For all Hardy’s expressive detail and physical creativity, Helgeland’s chewy, incident-packed script offers little insight into what made either of these contrasting psychopaths tick, or finally explode. Where Medak’s film focused extensively on the twins’ warped relationship with their dangerously doting mother, Violet (so vividly drawn by Billie Whitelaw), she’s a peripheral presence here. Rather, it’s Frances Shea — the working-class ingenue who married Reggie in her teens before succumbing to drugs and depression — who acts as the story’s principal female agent. Played by Emily Browning, Frances is even granted the film’s guiding voiceover, narrating the Krays’ antics in disillusioned tones from the outset until, via a cruel structural fillip, her point of view is harshly stymied.
It’s an unexpected way into the legend, but a compromised one. Despite Browning’s sympathetic efforts, Frances remains something of a cipher in the very story she’s telling, as the film dwells only cursorily on the mental and physical abuse she endured at the hands of her husband. On the more central subject of the Krays’ growing criminal empire, her point of view takes on an unconvincing omniscience; in assuming equal narrative authority on their domestic and professional lives, the device winds up selling both a little short.
While the framing is askew, the picture within is still a compelling one. Helgeland has fashioned the Krays’ rearing of London’s underworld from the gutters of Whitechapel to the sequin-lined heart of Soho as a bloodily romanticized evocation of time and place not dissimilar to “Bugsy’s” from-the-ground-up chronicle of the Las Vegas Strip. Dick Pope’s lensing frequently opts for comic-book extremities in its angles and compositions; production designer Tom Conroy revels in mirrored, brandy-tinted surfaces and heedlessly of-the-moment interior kitsch. Costume designer Caroline Harris, meanwhile, races through impeccably contoured, magazine-ready ensembles as recklessly as their freshly wealthy wearers presumably bought them. (Clothes maketh the men rather brilliantly when it comes to distinguishing the Krays themselves: Reggie’s spiv-slick suits are tailored, finished and carried so differently from Ronnie’s more ungainly gear as to denote a different physique entirely.)
If all this lacquered period veneer gives the film a faint air of dress-up — right down to retro-inclined contemporary pop star Duffy turning up as a sultry lounge singer — that’s at least somewhat appropriate to a downfall narrative in which surface prosperity is all too easily stripped away. (Less excusable is a rather literal-minded soundtrack of ’60s jukebox standards that smothers Carter Burwell’s ripe score.) Even viewers unfamiliar with the Krays’ story will swiftly deduce the genre-dictated direction of things, as the film routinely checks in with doggedly trailing police detective Leonard “Nipper” Read (a grimacing Christopher Eccleston) between the boys’ increasingly grisly exploits. Similarly, the meet-cute initiation of Reggie’s relationship with Frances hardly makes the subsequent souring of their marriage (between sporadic jail stints) any less surprising: Hers is a cautionary tale structured along similar, albeit grimmer, lines to “An Education.”
Most intriguing amid Helgeland’s tangle of familiar plot strands is Ronnie’s terse expression of his homosexuality — both to calculated professional ends, as the notorious orgies he hosts at his modest Bethnal Green apartment implicate high-flying political abettors, and more vulnerably private ones. His romantic relationship with young lackey Teddy Smith (a poignant, underused Taron Egerton, in very different gun-toting territory from “Kingsman”) is played in tender fashion, though it’s disappointing that the film, seemingly nervous of offending less liberal male auds, presents it in such coy terms. Still, whether taunting fellow heavies with pre-emptive admissions of his sexual preferences, brutishly declaring his own fragility to his bemused brother or making pie-in-the-sky plans to build an urban utopia in Nigeria, the formerly institutionalized Ronnie is the film’s most fascinating, conflicted figure — and the one whose interior life most eludes Frances’ narration.
Adopting a singularly strange, phlegmy vocal delivery, Hardy gleefully plays up his peculiar sense of etiquette, while locating a slim core of perceptive decency in his madness. Projecting a sense of near-feral bewilderment at the world’s demands, he wears his own skin fretfully; playboy Reggie, on the other hand, slides into his like a broken-in pair of loafers. This fundamental conflict in the Krays’ respective states of being is one Hardy wryly articulates even as the film concerns itself with plottier cops-and-robbers activity; if there’s an upside to “Legend’s” baggy structure and distracted focus, it’s that it allows ample room for this remarkable dual characterization to breathe and bellow.