Mar 17 2010


Biopics have a fairly standard structure; whether it’s about an aging musician or a troubled athlete, the presentation is often the same, and as of late, has become a boring.  Bronson begins with a fistfight between a naked convict and a group of prison guards.  If that doesn’t grab you by the balls, I don’t know what does.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson tells the story of Charles Bronson (not the American actor), Britain’s most notorious prisoner.  Having served 30 of his 34 years-and-counting sentence in solitary, it would be difficult to find enough material to make a compelling film.  Although this would be true for your average inmate, Charles Bronson is the furthest thing from ordinary.

Charles Bronson, born Michael Peterson, has written a number of books and sold a number of paintings while in prison.  He has also been transferred to over 120 prisons (including a few mental asylums) has orchestrated a several

Welcome home Charlie

hostage situations, and has a reputation of being one of the most violent people in Britain’s history, despite never having killed anyone, nor physically harming anyone aside from prison guards.  Why?  Well, Charlie Bronson just wants to be famous.  Scratch that; he wants to be a legend.

Given Bronson’s eccentricities concerning his own celebrity, it would be safe to assume that he agrees with the sentiment, “All the world’s a stage,” and that he’s its greatest character.  Thus, it would make sense that Bronson be told by no other than the man, the myth, and the legend himself.

Bronson (Tom Hardy) tells his own life story to an audience, and not just those in the movie theater.  Between the central narrative of the story, the film frequently cuts to Bronson standing on alone on a dark stage, performing for a packed theater.  Sometimes he’s standing there in his prison garb, other times he’s dressed to the nines in a tuxedo with clown make-up and re-enacting events from his life, reveling in his own notoriety.  These scenes do far more than add style to the film; it takes us into the mindset of the man and makes us understand him, or at least challenges our simple, pre-conceived notion that he is a barbarian without a cause.

You couldn’t have a traditional actor portray Bronson, just as you couldn’t tell his story in a traditional biopic.  Tom Hardy gives an incredible performance; the man disappears beneath Bronson’s menacing charm and circus strongman appearance.  The physical transformation is stunning; Hardy, a slender pretty boy, put on 41 pounds of muscle to play the part.  Not only does Hardy look the part, but he manages to humanize Bronson by channeling his wide-eyed enthusiasm and his desperation to become a somebody.  This performance is one of the best of the year, and it’s a shame he isn’t being recognized stateside; he’d give Jeff Bridges a run for his money.

Director Refn’s aim isn’t to generalize Bronson, though it isn’t an apology either; he is, both, man and beast.  By bringing us into Bronson’s world, we see the man behind the legend and understand why he is the way he is.  He isn’t crazy, nor is he malicious or cruel; he wants fame.  He wants infamy.  He wants to become the very stuff dreams, myths and legends are made of.  For better or worse, Bronson sees himself as a song and dance man in an ultra-violent vaudeville act that he is more than willing to be a part of, much to our horror and glee.

Unfortunately, Bronson’s first act is so visceral and kinetic that the film fails to keep that energy throughout the rest of the film, beginning with Bronson’s brief release from prison.  Although the last act of the film has its moments, it never quite recovers to its former glory.  The fact is, Bronson, both the man and film, flourish best in a topsy-turvy prison lifestyle; taking him out of it stops the film’s magnificent flow.  Plus, the film aims to be expressionistic in tone; truth is one thing, but we want to see Bronson as he sees himself: the showman.  Facts and historical accuracy be damned; let our entertainer do just that.

It isn’t difficult to see why Bronson is a legend in England; there aren’t many prisoners who possess his eccentricities, his ambitions, or his charm.  Although it peaks a bit early, Bronson is never boring, and always fascinating to watch.  Not to mention, I’ve never seen a biopic executed with such anarchic, devil-may-care fancy before.

Overall, 3 1/2 out of 4.

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