Bronson (2008)

Starring: Tom Hardy, Amanda Burton, Matt King, Kelly Adams, Jonny Phillips

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Rating: 1 2 3 4 5

Tom Hardy as Charlie Bronson

I'm almost scared to write this review because, well, Charlie Bronson is still alive, and if he ever gets out of prison (unlikely, admittedly, on the evidence of this film) he might get angry with me. And you won't like Charlie Bronson when he's angry...

This surreal, supremely confident, bloody, brilliant biopic pulls no punches in demonstrating how Britain's most famous prisoner achieved his notoriety. Narrated by Bronson himself in the vaudeville theatre of his twisted mind, it tells his story from delinquent youth to battle scarred celebrity prison warrior, via armed robbery, the 'funny farm' (frighteningly reminiscent of an 18th century Bedlam), the Broadmoor riots, unlicensed fights and countless days in solitary confinement.

Why does he do it? Why piss away his life spinning out a seven year prison sentence into thirty years and counting, creating around himself a constant barrage of mindless, nihilistic, self-destructive brutality? Because it's the only thing he's any good at. Yes, thirty years before X Factor, Big Brother and all those other voyeuristic means to snatch that elusive fifteen minutes of fame, Bronson (aka Michael Peterson) simply wanted to be famous – but had to settle for infamous instead.

Tom Hardy as Charlie Bronson

And yet, around this utterly unlikely central protagonist, so lacking in charm he's almost mesmeric, so terrifying yet, as one prison governor astutely puts it, so ridiculous, director Nicolas Winding Refn weaves a story that is somehow captivating and poetic. Like Velvet Goldmine with ultra-violence, it's styled to perfection, with a Scorsese-esque soundtrack that constantly amuses, surprises and moves, an ironic director's commentary counterpointing the action.

But a biopic stands or falls on the strength of its central performance, and Tom Hardy's is a real tour de force. Ever since seeing his scene-stealing turn as the screen's first ever sexy Bill Sikes in the BBC's 2007 dramatisation of Oliver Twist, I've been quite a fan, and here Hardy is simply stunning, giving a scarily committed, quicksilver, riveting performance that shocks, chills and, most frightening of all, occasionally endears.

If, like me, you missed this film when it was first released, hunt it out now: you won't regret it – or forget it in a hurry.

And Charlie, if you're reading this, er, hi...

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