Muchos gracias to my friend Tony for tipping me the nod to 'Bronson'. It came and went at the cinema and the one trailer I saw for it left me disinclined to go and see it. The trailer was basically a cavalcade of hard nut vs authority iconography: here's Charlie Bronson as a schoolboy smacking one of his teachers; here's Charlie Bronson (Tom Hardy) as an adult in a bare-knuckled boxing bout; here's Charlie Bronson, all shaven head and extravagent moustache, locked up in jail and swinging roundhouse as a phalanx of guards in full riot gear come charging at him. The trailer, in short, promised little more than fists, boots and truncheons, all delivered in the aggressive/iconic style that has typified (and swiftly cliched) British crime flics since Guy Ritchie did his wide-boy/cool-guy thing with 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' twelve years ago.
I should have done my homework. I should have taken note of the fact that Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn was the talent behind the uncompromising 'Pusher' trilogy. (As well as, bizarrely enough, an episode of 'Miss Marple' for TV. Sadly, it doesn't feature the grey-haired, tea-drinking, inestimably polite septaguarian sleuth launching herself at the chief suspect with a rousing cry of "Cam on then, yew fackin cahnt" and extricating a confession by means of repeated blows to the head.) I should have pegged Tom Hardy as the guy who gave such a magnificently dark characterisation of Bill Sykes in the recent BBC dramatisation of 'Oliver Twist' (though he did beef up in extremis for his role as Bronson). I should have listened to the pundit who tagged 'Bronson' as "a 'Clockwork Orange' for the twenty-first century" and not dismissed it as a glib pullquote.
So again: hat doffed to Tony for the lend of the DVD. 'Bronson' is indeed comparable to 'A Clockwork Orange'. Like Kubrick's divisive classic, it deals with a reprehensible character rendered iconoclastic by dint of being purely, simply and unapologetically who he is (ie. true to himself). Like Kubrick's film, it pits said protagonist against The System. Like Kubrick's film, it finds The System deeply and ludicrously at fault. Like Kubrick's film, it is redolent with scenes of violence and shot through with an aesthetic of amorality, and yet remains a work of satire. And like Kubrick's film, it's often funny as fuck - never mind that for the most part it shouldn't be!
Charlie Bronson - officially Britain's most violent prisoner - was born Michael Peterson. He took Bronson as his "fighting name". Refn's depiction of this defining moment is emblematic of his approach to the material. Urged by his effete associate Paul (Matt King) that a prerequisite for his success on the underground bare-knuckle fighting circuit is a name more memorable than the one on his birth certificate - "something like a movie star, lovey" - Peterson sits and mulls it over for a while. Then a look spreads across his face: it's inspiration, revelation and epiphany all rolled into one. Grinning, he slowly enunciates the four syllables of the name he's hit upon: "Charlton Heston." Paul rolls his eyes in despair; "Oh please, dear," he protests, "the man's a cunt." They settle on Charles Bronson instead.
It's a splendid moment that punctures the bad boy mythos that surrounds Bronson. Refn is less interested in Bronson the recidivist or Bronson the brawler; he's more interested in Bronson the media celebrity ... and in how Bronson can almost be considered a product/legend/icon (delete as appropriate) of his own creating. Much of Refn's staging of the film is just that: staging. His use of artifice is almost theatrical, down to Bronson prowling a theatre stage, narrating expositional monologues as if performing a one-man show. The finale has Bronson take hostage an art-therapist who has been encouraging him to express himself creatively. Bronson embraces his new found talent, but the more his sponsor talks him up as an artist, the more defiant is Bronson's ultimate response. It's as if he's not only unable to escape the battling, brawling, thorn in the side of The System that he is, but he wouldn't even if he could. Bronson forces his captive to become a living part of a Matisse-inspired performance piece, then casually invites the riot squad in the moment he's finished and gets down to the equally important business (certainly in his estimation) of a knock-down drag-out fight. Bronson as performance artist, with violence a necessary part of the performance.
Refn earns another point of comparison to 'A Clockwork Orange' in his use of classical music. The hostage/Matisse/punch-up scene plays out to the gentle strains of 'The Flower Duet' by Delibes. An earlier return to jail, Bronson frogmarched to solitary confinement, merits Siegfried's funeral march from Wagner's 'Gotterdammerung' - the music, allayed with Tom Hardy's swaggering performance, turns Bronson's impending incarceration into something ballsy and defiant and magnificent.
Come to think of it, "ballsy, defiant and magnificent" is a decent description of Refn's achievement with 'Bronson'. The film's energy, immediacy, intensity and imagery belie its £150,000 budget. Only its paucity of locations and the occasional lo-fi bits of sound recording mark it out as being made for less than the catering budget on even a moderate Hollywood production. In fact I'm all for saying that as soon as Refn gets his hands on a budget of any significance - and has the nous to reunite with the frankly freakin' awesome Hardy, who embarked on a punishing training routine to capture Bronson's physicality - it could well be a case of come in, Hollywood, your time is up.