Director: Nicholas Winding
Starring: Tom Hardy
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Runtime: 93 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
Rating notes: Violence, drugs, adult themes
No, not that Bronson. Although this Bronson, allegedly Britain’s most famous and notorious prisoner, changed his name from Michael Peterson, to Charles Bronson. The reasons why are at the core of this film. The director says that he was interested in the concept of Peterson’s use of the name, Charles Bronson, rather than in Michael Peterson.
This film is tough going. It is also an example of excellent filmic communication and cinema art. It is just who will want to submit themselves to this exploration of the criminal mind and behaviour that is the question.
As played by Tom Hardy in what is certainly a dramatic tour-de-force, both in acting and in performance art, Bronson is both a character and a symbol. While we initially see him naked in his cell shadow boxing (and he did become an expert on physical fitness – as well as being a pugnacious brute) and finish with him in solitary, bloodied and defiant, this is a stylised portrait of the man. Throughout the film, there is theatricality where Bronson is on stage in a theatre, framed by the proscenium and then looking out to a darkened auditorium of well-to-do, well-dressed patrons who eventually applaud him. But he is not only playing to them, he is playing them. He can smile and instantly turn grim. He can pretend to weep and reveal that he is laughing. He is made up as a clown at times. At other times, he uses the means of one profile being himself and turning for the other profile as a different character. These devices mean that Bronson both intrigues and repels (but rarely, if at all, elicits sympathy).
He sketches in his ordinary life, especially in the mid-70s, but he is a bully at school, molly-coddled by his mother, flirts, marries, has a child, attempts a robbery and is gaoled for seven years.
Once in gaol, despite his taunting the authorities and using his fists wherever possible, he is at home. The system gives him a framework for life. He wants some acknowledgement. He wants fame. He wants celebrity. He is moved from prison to prison. He is transferred to an institution for the criminally insane, but drugged and helpless, he wants out of there and is declared sane. He has a two months period where he is out of gaol in the 1980s, is taken up by a club owner, re-named Charles Bronson with Death Wish overtones – he had originally wanted Charlton Heston but was told that this was too weak – and fights illegal bare-knuckle bouts. But, robbing a jeweller’s shop, he is soon back where he feels he really belongs.
In fact, Peterson-Bronson has become an artist and has published eleven books. But, most of his time has been in solitary. We see his erratic behaviour in his taking a librarian hostage, doing art classes and then humiliating his teacher by holding him hostage as well and painting him as an art object. The director has made the observation that to understand Bronson, he can be seen as an artist searching for his life’s art canvas.
Nicolas Winding Refn has made some tough Danish films about drug criminals, the Pusher series. Here he brings a visual artist’s eye to his use of colour, framing scenes, using very long takes so that the audience has time to contemplate Bronson and other characters and try to imagine what they are thinking or feeling. The blend of realism and stylised film-making lead to a striking film.
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