Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
So much of men’s greatness is inflated by myth. In the case of Charles Bronson (no, not that one), the most violent prisoner to be detained at her Majesty’s pleasure, the size of the myth was due in no small part to self-perpetuation. A charismatic presence, Bronson could apparently switch his temper on and off like a switch. Smile one moment, a bloodied frown the next. Such a terrifying character requires a nimble and able talent to portray him effectively onscreen. Welcome to the making of Tom Hardy.
Like its protagonist, Bronson refuses to stick to the rules. Since Charles Bronson invented his own persona (his real name is Michael Peterson), Nicolas Winding Refn’s film invents its own narrative parameters; Refn and Brock Norman Brock’s script leaps from straight biopic to theatrical farce (giving us the striking image of Bronson appearing on a stage with white-face paint) to black comedy to drama to biopic again as quickly as Bronson’s temper fluctuates. This approach is certainly dynamic, but also rather distancing. Whether throttling prison guards or choking fellow inmates in a Cuckoo’s Nest-alike mental hospital, Bronson is energetic but lacking in pathos. Refn has no compunction in showing ‘Charlie’ as the brute he is, but it’s hard to empathise with a character whose modus operandi is lashing out for no apparent reason other than for attention. As Bronson states early on, he always wanted to be famous. Well, he’s delivered enough concussions and broken noses to have a movie made about him. The lesson is: crack enough skulls and fame shall be yours, brightly lit and brashly directed.
However, from this OTT maelstrom emerges a clear talent. Tom Hardy invests himself completely in the role of Bronson, and not just in beefing himself up for the part. The charisma, anger and borderline psychosis that drive Bronson are brought to the fore in a star turn, the dream of any young actor. Hardy bares all (literally and metaphorically) without compunction or fear. Whether extorting a prison governor (Jonny Phillips), torturing his art teacher (James Lance) with his painting skills or basically kicking the crap out of the prison guards, Hardy gives his all. It’s the kind of performance that makes stars and elevates potentially throwaway films to some form of cult status. Bronson is mad, bad and loving every moment of it!