The Krays


‘…walks a fine line between commentary and exploitation…’

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.


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  1. I’ve seen both the Kemps and the Hardy versions. I didn’t recognise them as glamourising crime as I thought they showed the taudry and the viciousness, and to l’il ol’ me at the other end of the country, made London seem a veritable cesspit. (An opinion that hasn’t changed since visiting the hole a couple of times.) Both movies well filmed and acted, Billie Whitelaw was on sterling form, made the movie for me, and Hardy was superb as both twins IMHO.

    • Well said! It’s my personal gripe about true crime films, but I have to admit that both The Krays and Legend are well made and popular films. As I mentioned, glamour is mentioned several times in The Krays, but connected to fear. I was wondering whether this story might work best from the point of view of the mother, and I think the 1990 one managed that; Billie Whitelaw is really terrific in this role. Not mad about London either…

    • I would be lying if I didn’t think about heads being nailed to the floor while watching this. Yet despite being well lampooned, the British can’t get enough London gangster stuff…

    • It’s problematic. I’m not sure you can make a better film from the material than this, and yet I’m personally not comfortable with it at all for the reasons you describe. This kind of stuff seems to inspire people in the wrong way, no matter what the intention was.

  2. I haven’t seen the film for a couple of decades, but I still remember the shock of that Chelsea smile. But ultimately, I think we agree that there often seems something tawdry and distasteful about most true crime movies, particularly ones that sensationalise and mythologise the anti-heros. The Kray twins were mythologised even when they were active, in fact they seemed to revel in their brash notoriety, the reputation probably served them well. And my recollection of the film was that, for all the quality of writing, directing and acting (the Kemp brothers were very good), its main effect was to further mythologise, which made me feel uncomfortable. I’m not sure I feel compelled to revisit the film to see if my perspective has altered.

    • I’d skipped this back in the day, despite it being a fairly popular movie for exactly the reasons you describe. I think everything about the film is several notches better than it needs to be, but like you, can’t quite shake the notion that while critics may swoon over the poetic images and tight drama, this can also been seen as a blue-print for passing maniacs who think that sticking swords into unarmed people makes them a smiliar legend. I had the same issue with the Tom Hardy version, and skip anything that seems to have sprung from the Nick Love/Essex Boys/danny Dyer crime explosion. But having ignored this for 30 years, I was impressed by the film-making, even if I still question the morals of depicting these genuine crimes.

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