Director: Peter Medak
Screenplay: Philip Ridley
Starring: Gary Kemp, Martin Kemp, Billie Whitelaw, Kate Hardie
Duration: 115 mins
BBFC Certification: 18
1990 certainly turned out to be an auspicious year for Gangster Cinema. Not only did it see the release of Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s magisterial exploration of the lower rungs of the Mafia, but also the much maligned The Godfather Part III, an above average sequel to two masterpieces that really isn’t anywhere near as bad as its detractors make out. Nestled between these two Goliaths of American crime was The Krays, Hungarian director Peter Medak’s study of Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the gangster twins who ruled the East End of London in the Sixties. Yet The Krays stands out against its bigger Hollywood brethren not just because of its focus on criminals from the other side of the Atlantic. Whereas Goodfellas and The Godfather adhere, for the most part, to conventions that are as thrilling as they are nowadays familiar, The Krays stands out not only as the most unusual gangster film to come out in 1990, but also as one of the most unconventional crime films to be released both before and since.
Its story, on paper at least, is a familiar one. Opening a few years before the start of World War Two, The Krays charts the notorious siblings’s childhood and adolescence, before moving on to see them rise to power in the East End of London, dwelling on their glory and success before the inevitable downfall. Yet it is the manner in which The Krays chooses to tell this story that makes it so unique.
Many viewers might already be familiar with The Kray Twin’s story. They can certainly lay claim to being two of the most infamous British criminals of the Twentieth Century, where at the height of their powers in the Sixties, they were known as much as showbiz celebrities as underworld kingpins (David Bailey, for example, even photographed Reggie Kray’s wedding). Their legend and infamy, however, has received a fairly recent boost in Brian Helgeland’s 2015 film Legend, which saw Tom Hardy (brilliantly, it has to be said) perform the roles of both Twins. If you are at all familiar with that technical and performative tour de force, be prepared for a surprise with The Krays. If Legend is The Kray Twin’s story told through the prisim of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, a rock and roll depiction of their life and times, then The Krays is the arty, acoustic rendition, less reverential, more experimental and far more comfortable playing fast and loose with the truth in order to peruse it’s own artistic goals.
A key thing to point out about The Krays, which can be said to be the source of both its greatest triumph and its most damaging flaw, is that the two Twins are not the only focus of the film. Yes, they appear in almost every scene and it is their actions that drive the narrative, yet writer Philip Ridley is as interested in the woman who surround the Twins – a Mother, an Aunt and a Wife – as he is in the brothers themselves. Indeed, their mother Violet (played with maternal steel by Billie Whitelaw) is as much a central and intrinsic character as Ronald and Reggie (and it is powerfully suggestive of The Kray’s interest and focus that in Legend, Violent barely appears at all). For a genre that is so often focused on violent and toxic masculinity, the film’s sincere interest in the effect that masculinity has on the woman closest to the Twins is as admirable as it is refreshing; and all the more startling when you consider that the film is now over thirty years old.
In fact, Ridley and Medak are quite happy at points to briefly leave the Twins out of the narrative altogether, allowing female characters to take centre stage, as seen in a powerfully theatrical monologue delivered after Reggie’s wedding by Susan Fleetwood. At other points, Medak focuses on Frances’ (Reggie’s wife, played by Kate Hardie) terror and revulsion as Reggie brutally attacks two men who were admiring his car. While we would typically expect to focus solely on the brutality, Medak chooses instead to intercut with Frances screaming and writhing in agony as her husband indulges in wanton savagery. In The Krays, violence doesn’t just wreck its emotional havoc upon the men who perpetrate it; it directly affects those closest to them, perhaps more powerfully and more damningly. This is brilliantly encapsulated in a scene towards the latter half of the film, where Frances is captured screaming in a staircase full of mirrors, her fractured reflection grimly hinting at her gradually disintegrating mental state.
Yet this shift in focus and tone does, of course, have a side effect. If you are coming to The Krays expecting a detailed and revealing biopic about how the Twins rose to power, then prepare to be disappointed. Ridley is far more interested in exploring the Twin’s symbiotic relationship and the resulting ripples to those closest to them than he is to an authentic re-telling of their story. While Ronnie’s homosexuality is effectively addressed, his schizophrenia is all but forgotten, while The Kray’s rise to gangland dominance is portrayed as being swift and almost easy; a quick pep talk in a prison cell, a fight in a snooker hall and suddenly they are the Kings of London. In service to telling what he saw as the best tale, Ridley even conflates two of the Kray’s most notorious killings, which in real life took place almost a year apart, into one night. The very fact that the film opens not with guns and violence but with a quiet and considered thirty five minutes of the Twin’s childhood should serve to show that The Krays is a film that boldly bucks convention. Whether this brisk and more theatrical aesthetic, applied to what many might expect to be a conventional crime biopic, works in the film’s favour or instead acts to its detriment is a hard one to call.
An easier one to call is the effectiveness of Gary and Martin Kemp playing the Twins themselves. While both are decent actors (it is Martin who gives the better, more naturalistic portrayal) and deliver effective performances, they never fully convince as ‘the Kray Twins’, not only lacking magnetic charisma but intimidating physical presence. Quiet simply, they never feel threatening or frightening enough in order to be truly convincing. Whatever your thoughts on the final film, there is no doubt that the Twin’s essence was captured far more viscerally by Tom Hardy’s bravura performance in Legend.
This absence of authenticity, evidenced in both the plot and the performances, can also be found lacking in the film’s setting. Unlike, say, the criminally under seen Gangster No. 1, The Krays feels curiously disassociated from its Sixties milieu, taking place in a world that just about captures the looks of the area but never the sound or the feel. This feeds into one of the film’s biggest flaws; The Krays never successfully evokes a true sense of the Twins as infamous gangsters or explores what made them so unique among the criminal landscape of the time, beyond their close bond and family relationship. Nor does it provide an exploration or give a sense of scale as to what Twins actually achieved, of how, for example, they became celebrities as much as lawbreakers. Indeed, it is hard to understand most of the time why we are even watching their story in the first place, as the film seems so disinterested in telling it.
Yet maybe The Krays didn’t need to tell their story so diligently as it was already so well known. When the film was made, the Twins were still alive and remained legends, so perhaps Ridley and Medak didn’t feel the need to have to portray or justify them as ones. Instead, The Krays presents us with criminals that feel human and vulnerable, gritty and down to earth. It reverses the usual crime biopic balance where family life and relationship take centre stage, with crime itself taking a backseat.
Ultimately more of a detached examination of the Twin’s relationship and the woman who lived in their orbit, the film may not be everyone’s ideal telling of the Kray’s story. Yet it stands unique among crime cinema with its admirable adherence to an unusual perspective rarely given screen time. Over the years it has become a cult hit with a devoted army of fans and it is not hard to see why. It might not be completely successful either as a biopic or as the more arty, introspective examination of the Krays that is wishes to be, but there has certainly been nothing else made quite like it, in all the years before and, more depressingly, in all the years since.
The Krays is released via Second Sight on the 12th July, continuing their run of beautifully presented Limited Editions. There is no mention of the source of the print used on the Blu Ray nor any details about a restoration, but the picture itself looks wonderful. Crisp and detailed throughout, with a lovely filmic look, there were a few tiny instances of colour fluctuations that I saw (that must be inherent in the source) but overall this is a fantastic presentation of the film that fans should be delighted with. The sound is equally sharp and clear.
As to be expected, there are several meaty bonus features accompanying the film:
- New interview with director Peter Medak
- New interview with producer Ray Burdis
- Writing ‘The Krays’: A new audio interview with screenwriter Philip Ridley
- New audio commentary by film historian Scott Harrison
- Archive audio commentary by Peter Medak, Gary Kemp, and Martin Kemp
- BFI 2015 Q&A with Gary Kemp, Martin Kemp, Kate Hardie, Peter Medak, and Philip Ridley
Commentary by Peter Medak, Gary Kemp and Martin Kemp: This is a commentary recorded in 2005 (and one I assume that was included on older home video releases). Medak and the Kemp Brothers discuss all aspects of the film, from its theatrical nature to the role woman play, as well as discussing the real life Kray twins themselves. This is full of interesting facts and trivia, and the Kemp brothers prove to be rather funny at times, but the delivery from everyone tends to be rather sedate and things run of steam a bit towards the end. Still worth a listen though.
Commentary by Scott Harrison: Film historian Scott Harrison is a huge fan of The Krays, believing it to be one of the greatest British films ever made. As to be expected then, his commentary is full to the brim with trivia and analysis. Keeping things loose and informal, Harrison is an engaging host, but is not always focused on what is happening on screen as the film plays out, occasionally going down interesting but not entirely relevant tangents.
BFI Q&A: This could quite possibly the jewel in the crown of the extras. A fifty minute long discussion filmed at the BFI that includes almost all of the key personnel from the film, this is a joy to watch. Fun, interesting and fascinating, everyone proves to be a great raconteur, especially Philip Ridley, who will make you laugh out loud.
Interviews: There are three additional interviews on the disc. The first, a twenty minute interview with director Peter Medak, initially covers ground heard in the commentary and BFI discussion, but he then goes into more detail about his thoughts and experiences of meeting the Krays themselves (accompanied by some fascinating photos) as well as discussing his desire to make a sequel! The next interview, a thirty five minute interview with screenwriter Philip Ridley, is audio only but there are enough photos used throughout to keep things interesting. Thankfully, Ridley also turns out to be a fantastic interviewee and remains witty and funny throughout as he discusses his entire journey on the film, from how he came to write the script to funny anecdotes about the film’s premiere. The last interview (and the best) is with Producer Ray Burdis. He gives a fascinating account of how the film came about and all the times he had to meet the Krays in order to get their approval, as well as going into detail about the difficulties of making the film, with pressure coming from the Police on one side and the Krays on the other. This is a really fun, down to earth interview – a great watch.
This Limited edition also comes with a perfect bound book (which I didn’t receive a copy of) and comes in a ridged slip case with six postcards.
With their release of The Krays, Second Sight continue their home run of beautiful and desirable limited edition releases of cult and classic films. A wonderful technical presentation coupled with a stack of fascinating extras means that fans of this unique slice of cult crime cinema should snap up Second Sight’s latest Limited Edition release without delay.