Starring: Tom Hardy, Matt King, James Lance, Juliet Oldfield
Writer: Brock Norman Brock and Nicholas Winding Refn
Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Controversial subjects tend to provide controversial movies and Bronson on face-value provides a number of probing questions as to appropriate film subjects and whether making a biopic of a man whose life has been less than upstanding will glorify his life choices. The question is fair but the argument would seem to fall if you can watch Nicholas Winding Refn’s film from an open-minded perspective for, while the film is heavily stylised and works hard to provide bone-crunching fight scenes, this is no glorification of a character. Rather, Winding Refn is concerned with creating an interpretation of the persona peddled by the erstwhile Charles Bronson, originally named Michael Peterson, rather than being concerned in any way in understanding his personal psyche. This is more of a work to try and gain an understanding of his personality type, someone who is craving fame to such a degree that he resorts to finding it through both ill-gotten means and onwards to making himself the top whatever prisoner Britain has ever known.
The film itself follows the story of Peterson across childhood and into his spells in prison when not in solitary confinement, plus his 69 days on the outside before he once more fell afoul of the law. The style employed smacks of the Clockwork Oranges in its juxtaposition of uncomfortable, clean colours and booming music which jars you into action, particularly notable is the use of the Pet Shop Boy’s ‘It’s a Sin’ during a tiny disco being held in the asylum he is sent to for a short time. Refn uses a lot of the similar camera movements you would see from music video directors from the past few years, reminding in places of some of Fincher’s earlier work or the less-successful but equally edit-conscious Jonas Akerlund. Refn though understands how to use the imagery and camera movements for a wider purpose which, incidentally, does not cohere to glorification of the lead character. He shoots Bronson, played by the astonishing Tom Hardy, as a bull of a man, but always finds ways to break down his triumphs, showing constantly how this man is failing to real even the despicable goals he aims for.
Most of this only works however because of the amazing performance from Hardy. He is phenomenally good in the lead role, eliciting uncomfortable sympathy at certain times but managing to provide such an intimidating, creepy figure at all times that any time you start to feel any empathy with his cause, its broken and busted down as he bursts into further fits of terrifying rage. It’s the kind of starmaking performance you tend to see once a year where an actor so much inhabits a character with gusto and intelligence, creating an indelible creation in a way I would argue could be compared to Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, for a recent role.
Hardy is so good, he probably pulls the actual film up a notch or two, particularly in the patchy second half. The first half is punctuated with amazing visual flourishes and visceral scenes, including an amazing fight in a holding cage right at the outset. This drives the film onwards superbly as it switches pace within differing scenes based on where Bronson is. The moment its starts to lose its way somewhat comes after he goes back inside, plus certain scenes during his time outside the prison. The personal scenes between Bronson and a young paramour on the outside, where he falls head over heels while she wants to stay with her boyfriend, give Hardy yet more great moments of acting, this time doing so only with his eyes and face rather than having to levy is beefed-up frame. The final act, as he goes back inside and the story follows a tangent of his relationship with supportive art teacher, doesn’t quite work in the writing as Bronson is provided with figures giving him acceptance and encouragement, which leads then to disappointment and, again, violence. These sequences were again visually and aurally interesting and Hardy is excellent, but those character moves to too succinct and neat to work.
None of this stops this from being a worthwhile piece of work. The controversy of its glorifying violence or Bronson himself is entirely unwarranted and reeks of the kind of reactionary, Points of View-style protestation against a movie that I would guarantee was led primarily by the Daily Mail and exacerbated by a group of people who have not, and will never, see the film. It’s a provocative piece of work and filled with ideas and intuition, not to mention the amazing performance it draws from Hardy which should be central to any award campaigns in the coming year.