Director/co-writer Nicolas Winding Refn (along with Brock Norman Brock) shoots nothing but artistic blanks in this vivid biography of “Britain’s most famous prisoner.”
A far too generous helping of Stanley Kubrick’s fantastic portrayal of violence-craving Alex (A Clockwork Orange)—notably the unapologetic narrative technique and even the signature bowler hat as one of his victims becomes the apple of the pathetically disturbed criminal’s eye—belies the notion that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Putting Charlie Bronson (earlier known by his real name, Michael Peterson, prior to his dogged fighting days during a brief 69-day sojourn out of the slammer) on a music hall stage with a packed house cheering and applauding his two-fisted bullying worked for a few frames. But when the makeup and costuming brought back far more than a hint of Laurence Olivier’s magnificent performance as Archie Rice in The Entertainer (cross-reference below), the film teetered on the precipice of much borrowed/nothing new even as the no-holds-barred feces, blood, snot, breasts and genitalia flooded the screen.
Worse still (and once again in the same vein as Kubrick’s brutal tale of droogs unleashed) classical music excerpts were largely employed to underscore many of the most dramatic moments—having Bronson whistle a few measures from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake added tiresome incredulity to artistic insult. Verdi’s “Chorus of Hebrew Slaves” got a pair of turns inside the prison walls (er, get it?) then Wagner’s “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” stretched the aural canvas to include authoritarian figures wondering just what on earth to do with their wayward, unrepentant subject. A less than stellar rendition of Bruckner’s mighty Fourth Symphony (Eugen Jochum and the Staatskapelle Dresden gave a decidedly lacklustre reading) added nothing to the effect. By journey’s end it seemed no judge would dismiss a musical malpractice suit.
As disappointing as all of that was, Bronson is worth a peek if only to admire Tom Hardy’s courageous performance, doing all he was asked and clearly demonstrating his mastery of emotional range and nuances of character.
Let’s hope Refn has now completed his hardly subtle mentorship with other filmmakers and develops his own voice and technique. Employing an original score that doesn’t mess with our most universal art is also highly recommended. JWR