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Non-Review Review: Bronson

Nicolas Refn’s Bronson is a rough film, quite like its central character. It’s tough and it’s challenging, and it doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, very much like “Britain’s most violent prisoner.” While it’s probably quite frustrating for most viewers, I actually quite admired the fact that Refn doesn’t try to explain or rationalise the conduct of his central character, instead daring to examine a man who is so institutionalised that he thinks of prison as a “hotel”, a hotel he’s been staying in for well over thirty-five years.

Like a caged animal...

Tom Hardy is incredible as Bronson. He’s equally tragic and comic, as befitting a character who feels he wants to be an artist of some description. He can’t sing (as one sequence demonstrates), and he claims he can’t act, so this man acts out through his incredibly brutal and seemingly pointless violence – at one point referring to his conduct in a bare-knuckle boxing match as “magic.” With his impossibly impressive moustache, it’s hard to deny that there’s something theatrical about Charlie Bronson. So it’s fitting that the story is narrated as a sequence of random vignettes related by Charlie to a large and anonymous audience, dressed as a clown or a mime or in any other theatrical garb.

Hardy is charming as Bronson, but he’s also scary. It’s really no surprise that the role really pushed the actor back to the fore and reestablished a career that had been spectacularly derailed by Star Trek: Nemesis over five years earlier. The movie gives us a fairly decent overview of the life and times of one of the world’s most notorious prisoners, but it’s Hardy who really has to sell it to us, delivering the central narration and addressing an applauding audience seemingly inside his own mind. While Bronson is clearly mentally unstable, there’s something undeniably charming about the way he struggles to figure out how to drink a cocktail, or stages a one-man re-enactment of the aftermath of a botched murder attempt.

Clowning around...

This is a character who has clearly become institutionalised, to the point where he prides himself on being a recognisable name inside – in a sense, it seems that the notoriety he has in prison is the only thing that stands to his name. He seems almost frustrated when moved to a psychiatric ward, worried that his reputation is gone, and seems nearly completely lost in the outside world – save when he’s participating in bare-knuckle boxing or fighting dogs for money. Refn is never too sympathetic to his incredibly violent subject, but he isn’t ever too cold or cynical either. There seems to be something wild and untamed about Charlie Bronson, and the way the character is caged throughout the movie, in enclosures growing gradually smaller, suggests a caged animal at the zoo. Or maybe a strange post-modern art exhibition.

I think that’s one of the smarter insights of the film, the way that Refn suggests that Bronson is something of a work of art created by the artist Michael Peterson as a persona – much like David Bowie has Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, or Bono has Mephisto. It’s never especially heavy-handed, and it’s more suggested than stated, but Refn does emphasis his subject’s creative side. Indeed, later in the film, with his circular sunglasses and big moustache, Bronson looks every inch the misunderstood artist creating magic on a tapestry beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. Of course, this is a character who considers urinating on a defeated fighter in the middle of nowhere to be a form of “magic”, so your mileage may vary.

We've got his number...

And that’s what I really like about Refn’s film, but it’s something I can see a lot of people hating. There’s no attempt to provide answers or reasons. There’s no insight into Bronson’s home life that explains the beast he became. There’s no triggering trauma or repressed memory that rationalises aways his horrible actions or violent impulses. He’s as likely to hurt those who mean him well as he is to attack those who do him wrong. In short, the movie doesn’t give its audience too many answers, which could be frustrating for a lot of viewers – and I suspect it was for some of the people who watched the film with me.

I like it, though. I mean, we’ve had decades of biographical films that have attempted to reduce their subjects down to one formative childhood incident, suggesting that you can fit everything that makes a person tick into a two-hour runtime. I’ve enjoyed quite a few of them, but it’s refreshing that Refn doesn’t really do that. Instead, he gives you a sample of Charlie himself, and lets the audience make its own determinations.

Giving us the hard cell...

The film is handled in a wonderfully quirky sort of style, with scenes staged well, and I do love Refn’s framing device, with Charlie addressing an imaginary audience. The soundtrack is all kinds of awesome, featuring all manner of classical music mixed with the Pet Shop Boys and even New Order’s superb Your Silent Face over the end credits. No wonder Drive is the best sounding film of the year, as Refn clearly has a talent mixing his soundtracks.

Bronson is a solid little biopic, and one that works because it does pretend to lay it subject entire bare, rather preferring to offer them to the audience “as is” for their own scrutiny. The movie has a stunning central performance from Tom Hardy, who really throws himself into it, but Refn crafts an impressive movie around his lead, to create something deeply fascinating and intriguing.

2 Responses

  1. “Bronson” has been waiting on my Netflix queue for too long now. Having just recently watched “Drive” at the cinema, I think I’m primed for another dose of Refn’s work.

    In a few days I should be loosed from the firm hold of a “Star Wars” saga run made longer by patching the original “Clone Wars” animated shorts into their proper place between “Attack” and “Revenge.”

    • Are the Clone War shorts any good? I’m considering a similarly epic watch, maybe over Christmas. Should I slot them in?

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