Film Review: The Krays (1990)
British cinema produced more than fair share of great gangster films. That achievement looks even greater considering that Britain lacked larger-than-life gangsters like those in USA that inspired Hollywood. One of the exception to this can be found in Reginald and Ronnie Kray, infamous bosses of 1960s London underworld whose exploits would inspire numerous works of literature, television and film to this day. First feature film based on their life is The Krays, 1990 biopic directed by Peter Medak.
The plot begins in 1934 when Violet “Vi” Kray (played by Billie Whitelaw) gives birth to identical twins – Ronald and Reginald Kray. Boys’ childhood in East End of London is marked by poverty, deprivations of Second World War and everyone around them being directly or indirectly involved in various forms of petty crime. By the time they grow up Ronald (played by Gary Kemp) and Reginald (played by Martin Kemp) became immensely protective of each other, but also prone to solve their problems with violence. After brief attempt to start boxing career and military service that ended with time behind bars, Krays become convince that their violent ways could serve as a way to make money. They start career of extortionists and establish protection racket which soon turns so profitable that Krays begin wearing expensive clothes, showering their beloved mother with gifts, buy prestigious London night clubs and ultimately begin mingling with celebrities. Their meteoric rise, however, isn’t without problems – Ronald, who is openly homosexual and more violent, becomes jealous of his more restrained brother who has apparently found happiness with beautiful wife Frances (played by Kate Hardie). Brothers also have to defend their criminal empire from those who subvert it from within like Jack McVitie (played by Tom Bell) or rival gang boss George Cornell (played by Stephen Berkoff).
Directed by experienced Hungarian-born film maker Peter Medak,The Krays is well-made in strictly technical sense. Various periods of British history, from Great Depression to Swinging Sixties, are easily reconstructed. The casting is superb, with veteran Billie Whitelaw (who, according to her statements, actually knew Krays in real life) providing formidable performance as boys’ loving but overbearing mother. The most important problem in casting – finding pair of similar-looking actors that could convincingly play identical twins (a big issue in days before CGI and modern special effects) – was solved by hiring brothers Gary and Martin Kemp, rock musicians best known as founders of 1980s pop group Spandau Ballet. Although not identical twins, Kemps looks sufficiently alike to pass as twins and both give good performance for people who weren’t trained as professional actors. Kate Hardie is also good in rather complex role of young woman who realises too late that the material wealth provided by her husband’s illicit line of work can’t wash compensate for violence and suffocating nature of such lifestyle.
The Krays had very good results at British box office, but they could be best explained by this being the first film to deal with country’s legendary gangsters. As a gangster epic, it is light years away in terms of quality from Hollywood films like Goodfellas. Film’s main problem is in the script that represented screenwriting debut of prolific writer Philip Ridley. When approaching the life and times of Krays, he decided to give too big emphasis on their formative years, trying to explain their future choice of career through pop psychology and bad influence of their overprotective mother. This segment of the film is overlong, although entertaining at times through little bits of gallows humour. Unfortunately, what comes next is underwhelming. Ridley’s script doesn’t dwell much on the beginnings of Krays’ criminal career and never bothers to explain how brother advanced from petty thugs into masters of London underworld. The film also never bothers to properly show their downfall and, like many bad biopics, opts for wrapping the story through telling what happened in end titles rather than giving proper closure by showing what happened. Despite those flaws, The Krays is moderately entertaining film and could be recommended for those unfamiliar with the real life story. Roughly quarter century later the same subject is covered in Legend, biopic in which Tom Hardy played both brothers.
RATING: 5/10 (++)
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