reviewed by Marc Glassman
Nicolas Winding Refn, director and co-writer w/Brock Norman Brock. Starring: Tom Hardy (Michael Gordon Peterson aka Charles Bronson), Matt King (Paul), James Lance (Phil Danielson), Amanda Burton (Mum)
Michael Gordon Peterson is contemporary Britain’s most notorious criminal. Known colloquially as Bronson after the tough-guy Death Wish star, “Charley” has spent 34 of the past 35 years in prison. 30 of those years have been spent in solitary confinement, an astonishing number brought on by his brutal fights and legendary hostage takings. Initially sentenced at the age of 22 to a seven-year term after being found guilty of armed robbery, Bronson has flourished in prison, becoming England’s ultimate hardman.
Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, most famous for the cutting-edge noir Pusher trilogy, has come up with a brilliant strategy for telling the Bronson story. At critical moments, he sets Bronson up as a theatrical character narrating his vicious tale to a crowd of spectators shrouded in darkness in an old music hall. Daubing himself with harlequin paint, he amuses his unseen audience with tales of the grief he has inflicted on guards, fellow inmates and prison instructors. The dual nature of the clown—happy performer on the outside fighting the tragic internal figure—is hinted at but never truly explored.
Even when he’s not seen on stage, Bronson is shown playing a part in the great scenes of his life. Not much of it is easy to digest. There are endless fights with guards, provoked beyond self-control by Bronson’s menacing behaviour and arrogant taunts. In one extended sequence, he humiliates a teacher he’s taken hostage, tying his victim’s arms behind his back, placing an apple in his mouth so he can barely breathe while painting his face white—including his eyelids. In the most aberrant scene, he nearly strangles a fellow inmate to death after he discovers that the man is a pederast.
Refn makes the whole enterprise palatable by rendering scenes in a bravura manner, lighting in a flashy expressionist manner and staging set pieces with intense theatricality. Tom Hardy’s presence as Bronson helps Refn immeasurably. The actor’s body builder torso is accurate for the character—and he gives Bronson a rude bravado that is almost charming at times.
Bronson’s tale takes a startling path towards the film’s ending. It turns out that after claiming to have no talent, the incorrigible prisoner is actually a talented poet and artist. In fact, his artwork has even been displayed in Toronto at the Headbones Gallery. Their website points out that Bronson has killed nobody and despite spending considerable time in homes for the criminally insane, he has been certified as clinically sane.
Bronson the film is rather like Bronson the man. Undeniably interesting and talented, but do you really want to spend time with him? Unlike Bronson, who is still in prison, that choice is up to you.