The British public’s passion for films about the notorious mother’s boys and gangsters the Kray twins seems to be a permanent fixture. The recent Tom Hardy film Legend became the most popular 18 certificate film ever released in Britain, and Peter Medak’s 1990 biopic was a big hit too. The fascination reaches back to the 1960’s, where film stars like Liz Taylor and Richard Burton were photographed in the Kray orbit, but it’s to the credit of Medak’s film that he directly addresses the link between glamour and violence, helped by an accomplished script by Phillip Ridley.
We start with screams and blood, both part of the birthing process undergone by the twins’ mother Violet, played by Billie Whitelaw in a BAFTA-nominated turn. The film ends with Violet’s death, and another strength is that she’s arguably the main, most developed character here. Violet is hard as nails, and doesn’t let doctors, other mothers or anyone get in the way of her brand of super-protective motherhood. With a nurturing group of older women indulging them, Ronnie (Gary Kemp) and Reggie (Martin Kemp) grow up to be monsters, immaculately dressed in sharp suits and ties, but with a penchant for violence to maintain their growing criminal empire.
There’s barely a minute of bloodletting in Medak’s film, but it’s pervasive and shocking; a Chelsea smile, a samurai sword across a man’s mouth, and a blade thrust through a prostrate victim’s hand and then the netting of a snooker table pocket. But there’s a lot more going on here than the average lurid tabloid highlights, notably a sub-plot about Reggie’s wife (Kate Hardie) and her suicide which skewers the toxic effect the twins had on those around them. Whitelaw is terrific here, and Steven Berkoff and comic Jimmy Jewell also add to the authentic London feel.
The Krays walks a fine line between commentary and exploitation; Medak and Ridley score in the way that the elide any depiction of the arrest, prosecution and prison terms of the twins; by focusing on the murder of Jack the Hat McVitie (Tom Bell), they suggest a magnetic force of destiny that seems to call the twins, making their demise as a criminal force inevitable. I’m not a fan of films that glamourise real life crime, a subgenre that launched a hundred supermarket discount–bin biopics, but despite my distaste for the material here, accept that The Krays is a cut above the norm thanks to measured writing and direction..
The Krays has a scheduled blu-ray release on July 12th 2021.