“Never walk backwards into a madman’s nightmare. You never know what you will find.”
- Caption on one of Bronson’s self-portraits.

What? Tom Hardy? The skinny, effete Patrick Stewart clone from Star Trek Nemesis (2002)?

Yes, that’s him.

The tiny, slightly camp one from RocknRolla (2008)?

Yep. He’s done a Christian Bale. Does anyone else remember the shock when Bale ripped his shirt off in Reign of Fire (2002) and revealed himself to be rippling with muscles which were patently missing two years earlier when he’d been American Psycho? No? Just me, then. Well, take my word for it: what Hardy has achieved here is even more impressive, apparently packing-on three stone of solid muscle to fill-out his barrel chest and build buttress-like shoulders.

The film begins and ends with Bronson depicted as a black and red painted monster, naked, primal, like some demonic echo of Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant (1992) but, as the film grows, you realise he is something far more secular; Charlie Bronson is a child … naked before the world within which, for all of his bulk and aggression, he is helplessly lost.

When he begins his direct-to-camera address, he tells us that he had always wanted to be famous – and fixes us with a mesmerising stare which tells us that we are now complicit in this. As is often the case with a biopic, we begin at the end (well, the end here is the end of the nineties … the real Bronson is still inside, some ten years later, but has experienced an epiphany which clearly makes him a better person if a less entertaining cinematic subject) then jump around within the limited space of his life, intercut with these wonderfully-diverting straight-to-camera asides where Charlie acts out his story to the imaginary audience in his head.

He is determined to make his name as the worst prisoner in the entire penal system, after-all “… they don’t give you a star on the walk of fame for ‘not bad’, do they!?” His unpredictable flashes of violence bringing a dozen cosh-wielding guards piling down onto him – the sheer excessiveness of which affords him the hero’s welcome upon his return to the main prison population, along with the towering reputation that he so craves.

When starved of his audience, he is a seething pressure-cooker of rage. In one lengthy scene, the camera pirouettes around him as he stalks savagely around and around his eight-by-ten, yet, by contrast, in other scenes he is calm and amenable and the camera stays static and aloof, allowing the actors to arrange themselves like posed statues within the frame. It is almost as though Charlie were, in these moments, immortalising himself in living freeze-frames.

It is in these calmer, more posed moments that one can fully appreciate the symmetrical framing and cold, stark architecture of the prisons, which reminded one of the later Kubrick (and I realised why when checking the notes revealed that the Director of Photography, Larry Smith, actually worked with Kubrick).

Nicolas Winding Refn (director of the Pusher trilogy) has peppered this film with subtle allusions to other prison movies … but none of it is so heavy-handed as to distract from Hardy’s magnetic performance. You’ll see the slightly-out-of-step-with-reality Britishness of A Clockwork Orange (1971), whilst the Rampton sequence has the air of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (1975) and 12 Monkeys (1995). Inevitably, then, you find yourself sympathising with Bronson in these scenes, his vibrant, violent spark chemically snuffed-out, leaving him drooling and catatonic. Stripped of his energy and boundless charisma, you realise just how empty a human shell he is, how entirely devoid of direction; but he is still sufficiently cogiscent to decide that he doesn’t like the creepy peadophile who befriends him. You even cheer when this relationship reaches its inevitable conclusion. So, bereft of ideas of what else to do with the man, The System decides to certify him sane and unleash him.

Bronson seems strangely smaller out in the world, less animated, held in by a suit which doesn’t quite fit, marching around the streets of mid-seventies Britain like a Dick Emery caricature, face stoically blank. He clearly doesn’t comprehend much of what is going on around him, now he is no longer in the environment he has come to call his own. Inevitably, his infantile emotions get him into trouble and it is not long before he is back home, back in his eight by ten “hotel room”.

Although playing just the one role, Hardy gets the chance to assay a wide range of acting styles – most of them knowingly theatrical - as he explores Bronson’s vivid imagination and complex, contradictory personality. He clearly loves giving this thuggernaut an enthusiastic breath of life, mostly so he can use it to call everyone in earshot a “fackin’ kant”. Given the time of year this film is released, I don’t imagine he’ll be remembered when it comes to Awards Season, as Ben Kingsley was for his similar turn in Sexy Beast (2000), but I feel he should.

The film is a collage of moments from Bronson’s life (both inner and outer) layered and orchestrated like the classical music which wafts through the soundtrack from time to time, creating a symphony out of the individual ingredients of this ugly, unfortunate and overwhelmingly aggressive life.

Violence is often portrayed, in films, as the last release of those who are sexually stifled. Bronson seems to have no understanding of sex at all. His wooing of Irene out in the world is as clumsy as the gropings of the teenager he emotionally is. Inside, there is an oddly anachronistic scene where he has a hostage and starts to strip off. The hostage clearly thinks the worst … but all Bronson wants is someone to help him put on his “war paint”, the grease he uses to make him slippery when fighting with the crowd of cosh-weilding screws he expects at any second.

Art tutor, Phil Danielson, has the greatest affect on Bronson’s life (and is probably the best advert for the benefits of rehabilitation) by unlocking that all-important release for his pent-up energy which he embraces. This has been something of a saving grace for the real Bronson who, now well into his fifties, sells art for charity and writes books about his life (including a book on how to keep fit in a prison cell).

His art has the naïve simplexity of Leo Baxendale’s crowded full-page illustrations I pored over in The Beano of the 1970s. But this makes sense because, of course, Bronson has been in prison pretty much since he was a child, so the only art he will likely have ever been exposed to would be comic art.

As the film reaches its end-game, Charlie is surrounded, did he but know it, by echoes of high art. Bound and gagged and drizzled in his own blood, he looks like something from a mutated Francis Bacon portrait. When he takes yet another hostage, he paints his hostage as some chimera of Dali and Matisse, all to the accompaniment of The Flower Duet, played out on the prison speakers in a cheeky little nod to The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Throughtout the film, he is trapped in ever-smaller cages until he eventually finds himself, in an image that will be painted indelibly in your mind, in one almost medieval in its construction and intent. But, of course, throughout his life, he has been trapped in his own cage, the cage of his mind, the cage of his body, the cage of his desire for fame which, as his world gets ever smaller, seems to get get ironcally larger.

Bronson’s true art is his violence and thirty years of solitary confinement is his process! When he is encouraged to artistically express “ … the part of you that doesn’t belong here” he finds nothing. Every bit of him belongs there. Charlie Bronson is no John McVicar, he isn’t equipped to learn from his mistakes. For him, that wouldn’t be so much ‘self-improvement’ as evolution. That is Charlie Bronson’s tragedy, it that is what makes Tom Hardy’s performance so mesmerising and it is what makes this movie so … captivating.
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Tom Hardy, Matt King, Kelly Adams, James Lance
Dur 92 mins

Cert: 18


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