Posted on Saturday October 18, 2008, 15:13 by Damon Wise
Being in Abu Dhabi recently means I've neglected my LFF duties, which began last night with the world premiere of Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson, a biopic of Charles Bronson, Britain's most violent prisoner. I'll declare an interest now and reveal that not only is Refn a friend of mine, I actually thought he shouldn't do this film, thinking it would just be another British gangster movie and a waste of Refn's talents. I also met its star Tom Hardy on the set of RockNRolla last year, and the reverent way he talked about Bronson (the man, as the film hadn't been made yet) made me wonder if he wasn't a bit deluded, in the way that middle-class people who hobnob with criminals usually are. However, having seen the finished result, I was wrong about both these things, and while it's not for everyone, Bronson is an extraordinary attempt to get inside the mind of a sociopath, a criminal whose prison is literally his world. I was expecting a straight biopic, but although it has some of those elements, or rather details, it's much more impressionistic. Bronson has been in prison for 34 years now, much of it in solitary confinement, and he's not getting out any time soon, so clearly Refn faced a tricky task getting 90 minutes of movie out of that.
His first lucky strike was Tom Hardy. I've had a soft spot for Hardy since he did Star Trek: Nemesis and came to the Empire awards wearing his dad's suit. I knew from production stills that he'd worked pretty hard at looking like Bronson but I wasn't prepared for how much he'd become Bronson, not just by growing “the most notorious tache in the whole penal system” but by capturing his lean, psychotic physicality. The beginning of the film will prove difficult for those expecting a pacy drama like Refn's three Pusher films: though it moves quickly, the rhythm is staccato and theatrical, with Bronson addressing both the cinema audience and the black-tie audience in his mind, who sit , horrified, in rows, like an upscale opera crowd. It takes a while to bed in, but when it does, Bronson becomes an extraordinary journey through an unimaginable mind. As one of Charlie's friends said after, it's not a “Free Bronson” movie, it's an attempt to see his life as he sees it, which is not very pretty sight. But although it deliberately flirts with glamorisation, Refn's film is ultimately a non-judgemental look at a very judged man. You'll come away glad that he's behind bars, but perhaps understanding his insane rage a little better, since he emerges as a born performer with nothing to perform – except harsh violence, which he's proved to be very, very good at.
Part of the secret of the film's success is its humour. Bronson would have made a great Joker; he really doesn't care, and his amorality is chilling. But he's also a very, very funny man, in the way that menaces often are, and Hardy carries off his sadistic wit with a glint in his eye of the kind last seen in Daniel Day-Lewis's eye. Refn frames the film with an obvious love for A Clockwork Orange, since Charlie Bronson is the Alex who never grew up. But there are more unexpected references in here, including Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising, and the sexuality within the film is certainly strange too, if not downright creepy at times. I certainly want to see it again, and because of its washed-out hues it felt, at times, as though I already was seeing it again, like someone had unearthed a lost cult movie from the 70s, when Bronson first went in. I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, certainly not the squeamish, but this is a rare film that explores the psychological roots of crime, not just the physical manifestations. In that way it's a character study, but the good news is, it's more Tom Jones than a carbon-copy Chopper, a film about self-destruction that fits curiously well with two other LFF movies, Hunger and The Baader Meinhof Complex. See it if you dare!
For a taste of the mayhem, go HERE...