Bronson ends with a caption stating that its subject has now been in prison for 34 years, 30 of them in solitary. Good.
There has recently been a rash of films about, and celebrating, ‘hard men’. Football hooligans, gangsters and other assorted villains have been put on screen and essentially eulogized. Bronson, a biopic of Britain’s most violent prisoner, could easily have been another entry in this rather despicable cycle, but seen through the unusual eye of Pusher trilogy director Nicloas Winding Refn it becomes something else entirely.
Refn approaches Bronson more as a performance artist than a criminal, refraining from making moral judgments about a man who is quite clearly not entirely right in the head, and it is this approach that makes Bronson the often riotous entertainment it is. The story is related by Tom Hardy’s Bronson literally as theatre, many scenes seeing Hardy in Comedia Del Arte style make up acting out scenes on an empty proscenium for an unseen audience. The film also frequently cuts to him in isolation, reacting to or commenting on the action. It’s a device that at first seems, potentially, a little misjudged, but the whole film is so heightened (as is Bronson’s life) that it not only works, it becomes one of the film’s most entertaining traits.
The whole enterprise stands on the stunning foundation that is Tom Hardy’s rabidly committed and utterly mesmerizing performance as Bronson. Hardy bulked up for the role, and his physical form is imposing, but undercut by Bronson’s rather reedy voice. Bald and extravagantly mustachioed, Hardy’s is a complete transformation, and you never, ever see the actor beneath it. Without Hardy’s performance, given that his is the only role with more than about 15 minutes of screentime, Bronson would completely fall apart and the role ought by rights to transform this relatively unknown actor’s career.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s choices are as daring as Hardy’s, his visual style and his use of music (particularly a great sequence set to The Pet Shop Boys' It’s a Sin) stamp the film with its own specific identity, though it does, as a whole, recall the early part of A Clockwork Orange. Refn doesn’t shrink from Bronson’s violence or his madness, in the film’s finest scene he and Hardy brilliantly juggle menace and comedy after Bronson takes a prison librarian hostage, seemingly for the pure hell of it.
The script is frequently very funny, and this makes Bronson an engaging couple of hours, but there are things missing too. There’s no actual insight into Charles Bronson, over two hours we live with this man, but beyond an image of a violent clown we learn almost nothing about him, and certainly nothing about why he acts as he does. There’s also the uncomfortable issue of whether I should be entertained by this man, who really is nothing more than a sociopath and a thug. This troubles me because I can see some audiences viewing Bronson as the hero of this story. As a movie though Bronson has one deeper issue; it’s very repetitive. That’s partly dictated by its subject’s life; 34 years in prison taking hostages and beating up guards, but there really are only so many times you can watch Tom Hardy strip down to punch someone before it becomes boring.
There is much to admire in Bronson, it is a stunning calling card for both Tom Hardy and Nicolas Winding Refn, but much about it also troubles me and I never felt that its great elements added up to become a great film.