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Bronson (2009, UK)


Director: Nicolas Winding Refn     Starring: Tom Hardy, Matt King

Biopics are always a gamble. Sometimes you need to be familiar with the subject of the film to get the most out of it, a two hour movie proving a tight space to fit in sufficient details of a person’s life to give you a decent idea of what they were all about without some prior knowledge. Refn sidesteps this issue completely with Bronson. It doesn’t matter too much who he is or why he’s in prison or what his life history is. It’s far more concerned with his nature as a distillation of human nature and the corrupting influence of the need for recognition. It’s the sort of film that would drive the average Daily Mail reader into apopleptic rage, a first glance of the cover giving the initial sense that it in some way is celebrating the life and times of a psychotic, brutal maniac. In truth, it steps back from celebration or condemnation reserving the value judgements for the viewer. It shows Bronson as he is then it lets you make up your own mind.

Tom Hardy is a revelation in the title role. In order to muster a convincing portrayal of Bronson’s circus strongman look he had to put on 3 stone in weight, a feat reportedly achieved by doing 2,500 press ups a day for five weeks. This sort of De Niro level commitment is appropriate considering the Bickle-esque nature of Bronson himself, a man struggling with the fear of being a nobody and lacking any discernable talent who instead defers to brutal violence to make a name for himself.

Brutality is a key theme of the film. Not just that exhibited by Bronson but also the brutality of the system in its efforts to reform, subdue and ultimately control him. Again, Refn doesn’t condemn this outright. There seems little choice for the authorities when it comes to dealing with him, a circumstance brought about by Bronson’s unflinching insistence on picking fights with his custodians at every opportunity and an abject refusal to obey the law. Much like Refn’s Valhalla Rising, it’s a question of human nature versus the constructs we try and impose on it. Bronson is the living personification of the violence inherent in mankind, violence that simply grows when faced with attempts to repress it. Even when he gets sent to a mental institution where he spends his time in a thorazine induced haze, no amount of chemistry is enough to eradicate his violent nature completely. In this respect it is reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange – no matter what the punishment doled out, including medical “treatment”, the fact remains that it is simply the way he is.

All that said, there are moments when Bronson comes across sympathetically, not least of which when he spends a brief spell back in society between prison terms. On the inside he felt like a king, a celebrity, possessing a reputation that earned him the dubious respect of his inmates and the fear of his captors. On the outside he is a nobody, lost without the structure and routine of prison (even if that routine involved regular beatings and enormous stretches in solitary confinement).

Visually, it’s wonderfully framed and artfully edited and the masterful use of classical music to score it, interspersed with contemporary pop music that marks time in the otherwise timeless limbo of prison is the cherry on top. Don’t be put off by the feeling that it’s a glamourisation of a violent criminal and the lifestyle that goes with it. That couldn’t be further from the truth. What Refn has done is point a lens into the heart of a deeply disturbed man and left it up to us to decide how we feel about it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 22/05/2011 04:42

    Certain parts during this film are awesome, but their just wasn’t enough here for a whole film. Tom Hardy is amazing and very scary, but the rest of this film just didn’t seem to jell out well at all. Good review, check out mine when you can!

    • 23/05/2011 14:04

      Thanks for the comment, it’s always nice to hear another viewpoint on a film. I couldn’t disagree with you more on this one though! I think there is far more insight in Bronson than you get from say Chopper, a film that it is lazily and innapropriately compared to all too often.

      There is enough information about Bronson’s life to give you a good sense of the social situation from which he came but I think Refn’s angle is that it is of little consequence to his behaviour. As a film maker he clearly has a fascination with the darkly violent nature of mankind and the folly of trying to repress it or label it as dysfunction or mental illness. Refn’s follow up feature, the existential Viking crusade epic Valhalla Rising stands as further testimony to this.

      Rather than serve up a glib account of Bronson’s life with a “see, he turned out this way because he had a hard life”, black and white, oversimplified moral message he has chosen instead to look at nature over nurture and ask the really difficult question i.e. that perhaps he’s the way he is because that is simply the way he is and that perhaps it’s a purer, more instinctive state of being.

      I like the fragmented narrative and theatrical feel, I couldn’t help but feel it could easily be adapted for the stage and made the film much more personal. Admittedly this unconvential approach is not for everyone and I can perfectly understand why people might find it distracting or feel it slows the pace, I happen to disagree.

      Anyway thanks for stopping by to read my review and thanks again for your input. I’m always up for a good debate over film.

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