An overindulgent take on “Britain’s most famous prisoner”, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson is a striking but strangely aloof film that would have been better served had the director shown a little restraint.
It’s a near-parody of Kubrick, and specifically A Clockwork Orange; visually arresting but strangely hollow, as if Refn doesn’t believe in his style. Ultimately, we never really learn much about Charles Bronson (not to be confused with the actor), why he is famous, or what made him a violent criminal.
Charles Bronson (Tom Hardy), a circus strongman in appearance with a bald head and a walrus mustache, narrates his own story from a theater stage in front of a live audience.
He was born Michael Petersen in Luton in 1952, and according to the film, was a senselessly violent young boy who grew up to be a senselessly violent man. He has a wife and a kid, but they’re soon forgotten when Petersen robs a post office and is sentenced to prison for 17 years.
And he’ll remain in prison and psychiatric hospitals for much of the remainder of the film (and in real life, he’s still there today), save for a brief episode when he’s paroled, becomes a bare-knuckle boxer, proposes to a girl who rejects him, and takes the name Charles Bronson, after the actor (Charlton Heston was nixed).
But prisons are where he’ll make his mark. He paces in his cage, gets all riled up, waits for the guards to enter and then unleashes a violent fury upon them. Eventually, he starts taking hostages to draw that influx of police that he can unleash upon.
And he lubes himself up with paint and grease so he can squirm his way out of their clutches as they try to grab him. This is who Charles Bronson is, a functioning psychopath who waits for society to capture him and then fights back with all his (considerable) might.
There’s a fascinating, gritty story in there. Refn’s film, on the other hand, is an exquisitely styled nightmare, every shot pretty as a picture as Wagner and Verdi highlight the soundtrack. The violence is too stylized to have much of an impact. Isolated shots and scenes are fascinating; put together they come across hollow.
Bronson often feels like Kubrick’s Alex, particularly in over-medicated psychiatric hospital scenes. But in painting the character as a symbol Refn loses sight of the fact that he’s also an all-too-real being.
Hardy, however, is a revelation as the titular character, an intensely frightening creation that indeed feels all-too-real. Despite a near-comical appearance. If there’s one thing I’ll take from the film it’s the look and feel of Charles Bronson; we never really get inside his head, but the mere sight of him is arresting.
There’s a lot to admire here, but Bronson pales in comparison to Andrew Dominik’s Chopper, a very similar but harder-hitting film about Australian criminal Mark “Chopper” Read. Also see: Steve McQueen’s (again, not to be confused with the actor) Hunger, about IRA martyr Bobby Sands.