The first thing the movie made me think was, is this going to be a glorification of a man who really doesn’t need any glorifying, in fact just referring to him as “Britain’s most famous prisoner” seems to do that, but, by the end of the film Bronson is far from glorified, but is, none-the-less, famous (but then that is not really the film makers’ fault).
This glorification is certainly a concern, but, as the film goes on, it is clear that this is not what is happening here as the picture painted of the man originally known as Michael Gordon Peterson is far from flattering.
What it really succeeds on is being a filmic portrait of Bronson and it does this using a technique similar to that used by Mat Whitecross in his film about the life of Ian Dury, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.
Refn starts us off with Tom Hardy as Bronson filling the screen and talking to us directly, telling us about his youth, which he describes as normal, despite the increasing trouble making and violence shown.
From there we meet Bronson the showman, and this it seems, is what is at the heart of the man (aside from a brutal streak that seems to come from a Tarantino movie but is actually from real life).
Between sections purporting to be ‘reality’ we get Bronson on stage in front of a seemingly empty theatre giving us his view of events and filling in the gaps between what is shot as ‘real’.
As well as being a great device to move the story on this also serves to add an extra element to the character we maybe wouldn’t see through a ‘straight’ drama of his life as we see him being the big vaudeville/music hall performer, but playing to no one but the voices and applause in his head.
While it’s hard to say whether this reflects the state of mind of the real Bronson, it certainly matches the man we see in the rest of the film and works really well to paint a picture of a highly delusional character.
The ‘real’ scenes are all filmed with a remarkable eye for detail and throughout it feels like watching the 70s (and 80s) and, while this something that all films should do, Bronson seems to hit the nail on the head of this era – right down to the brilliant juxtaposition of the despair and bleakness present in England away from the South East and the high sheen pop-dance music of bands like (most notably) The Pet Shop Boys – although the choice of their song It’s A Sin contains its own juxtaposition.
Of course it would be remiss of me not to mention Tom Hardy’s performance that backs up Refn and his teams’ work in fine style.
Capturing an essence of the character, both psychologically and physically, Hardy delivers a real tour de force (for want of another cliché) that is at once mesmerizing and repellent.
He captures something of the man’s intensity purely through presence as he goes for long periods without uttering much dialogue in the real world scenes, notably uncomfortable around others unless his stripped to the waist and throwing a punch or in situation of his own devising with the prison warden.
This is contrasted by the ‘on stage’ moments where he becomes a showman, commanding his possibly imaginary crowd (and us) and building a delusional sense of his own fame and importance.
While the film has many interesting facets, and has been compared to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, I would suggest it is not quite the sum of its parts.
Refn paints a fascinating picture but it lacks something of the context films ‘based on a true story’ often need, though of course this could be another device highlighting an aspect of his subject’s fame.
But, none-the-less, it is a fascinating look into a real story of modern-day celebrity and myth making, both self-created and created by the media, and offers a, somewhat extreme, warning to anyone seeking fame for fame’s sake.