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Ben Austwick [Celluloid 03.18.09] movie review action thriller drama biography

Year: 2009
Directors: Nicolas Refn
Writers: Nicolas Refn & Brock Norman Brock
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Ben Austwick
Rating: 7 out of 10

The names glare red-on-black in the true crime sections of British bookshops: "Mad" Frankie Frazer. Dave Courtney. Cass. "Razor" Smith. Charles Bronson himself. Violent criminals who have gone on to fame and fortune by producing badly written, often unrepentant autobiographies that are usually little more than a curiously dull string of events and dates. Throughout its length the biopic "Bronson" threatens to be exactly this kind of lowest common-denominator rubbish, ridden with cliché and bereft of insight, but its unusual style and some interesting performances raise the tone considerably.

Charles Bronson is, as the film's tagline has it, Britain's most famous prisoner. Only guilty of fairly minor instances of robbery on the outside, he has spent most of his life behind bars due to his reluctance to accept prison life, variously attempting to murder fellow inmates (sex offenders of course, so excusable to his fans), staging rooftop protests, and assaulting and kidnapping prison workers. He is an interesting character who has captured the imagination of a sensation-hungry public, his strange choice of name (changed by deed poll during a brief boxing career), prison physique and exuberant moustache lifting him above the usual monochrome celebrity criminal. Furthermore an extensive portfolio of naive prison art hints that behind the violence there may be a misunderstood intelligence, raging at an inhumane and unjust prison system.

These "hidden depths", a complicated relationship with the prison system - which he seems to need and despise in equal measure - and an almost pathological desire for fame form the basis of this character study. Praise must be lavished upon Tom Hardy as Bronson for his superb interpretation and performance of difficult material. At first embarrassingly hammy, slowly the realisation dawns that any other approach would fail, the self-conscious overacting and theatrical style perfectly fitting this reading of Bronson's character. Absurdly camp supporting performances from Matt King and James Lance, both established TV comic actors, suit the tone of the film perfectly, and some great art direction and stunning sets make "Bronson" a visual treat. It's a pantomime piece: circus-bright and surreal, exaggerated and playful. Comparisons in the press to "A Clockwork Orange" are perhaps a little overenthusiastic, but the influence is certainly there.

This fictional approach to real-life and furthermore very recent events is a little uncomfortable at times. Rampton Secure Hospital is portrayed (beautifully, it has to be said) as a crumbling mansion of gigantic, high-ceilinged rooms populated by gibbering maniacs. In one scene the barking mad inmates pogo in the middle of a hall to the Pet Shop Boys at a disorganised disco. Apart from misrepresenting the very real and serious place Rampton is, this is a stereotyped and surprisingly dated view of the mentally ill elicited for a few cheap laughs.

Artistic license can perhaps excuse this, but one of the film's central scenes, the kidnapping of Bronson's prison art teacher Phil Danielson (a fantastic performance from James Lance) goes much further into the realms of bad taste. Portrayed in the film as a comedic episode where Bronson puts Danielson through some mild humiliation which he shrugs off acceptingly, in real life the forty-four hour ordeal was much different. "He tied my left arm to my body and then tied my wrists together. I was convinced I was going to die" said Phil Danielson in a Guardian interview. "It was as if he was in some sort of trance. I thought I was going to be sacrificed." Danielson suffered post-traumatic stress and three nervous breakdowns after his ordeal and has never worked since. He made his feelings about the film clear in a recent Daily Mirror interview.

So why does "Bronson" feel the need to glorify and exaggerate real-life events in this way? The fact is that there isn't that much material to work with. Charles Bronson has done very little in life except act up in the monotonous prison environment, and that doesn't provide enough substance for a feature length film. "Bronson" stretches its subject's character in the vain hope of creating some sort of depth, but there just isn't that much of him. The clue is in his much-lauded naive artwork, which in actuality is nothing more than the simplistic and one-dimensional scrawlings of somebody locked in perpetual adolescence. Interesting on the surface, Bronson is actually a pretty boring person, and his story should perhaps have stayed on the true crime bookshelves.

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Anonymous (13 years ago) Reply

Just looks like a crappy British version of Chopper.

Suprised you haven't compared it to Chopper actually.


Agnonymouse (13 years ago) Reply

RE: Chopper

Based on an autobiographical book by a criminal about his crimes... Mixing "circus-bright and surreal, exaggerated and playful" with harsh reality?

Even the poster for the film is the same.. oh dear.

Please check out Chopper. I'd love to hear your opinion.


Ben Austwick (13 years ago) Reply

It's like Chopper in as much as it's in the criminal biopic genre (along with loads of other films), but there aren't that many similarities at all.

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