Film review: Bronson

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BRONSON, the latest film from Danish wnderkind Nicolas Winding Refn (if you've not seen his Pusher trilogy, rent it immediately) is a brutal, blistering and bonkers biopic of Charles Bronson, the man the tabloids, and certainly this film's marketing campaign, likes to dub "the most violent prisoner in Britain". It should not be confused with a movie about the late, steely-eyed American action hero of the same name. Well, not entirely. This Charles Bronson was named for the Death Wish star by a bare-knuckle fight promoter who thought Bronson's real name, Mickey Peterson, didn't quite conjure up enough menace, panache and star quality to match his violent, theatrical, legend-in-his-own-mind personality.

But aside from this small biographical detail, all other links to the Hollywood star should be forgotten. And while you're at it, so should the conventions of the traditional biopic. Though it takes certain details from Bronson's life, Refn and his lead actor, Tom Hardy, have transformed his story into a bizarre and deranged piece of cinematic performance art.

The film will doubtless spark the usual debate about the extent to which movies glamorise crime and violence and it will almost certainly raise the question of whether a real-life figure such as Bronson, who has spent 30 out of 34 years in jail in solitary confinement, deserves to have a film made about him (especially one that doesn't flat out condemn him). Indeed, Bronson has already incurred the wrath of the red-tops (which never seem to mind printing stories about him to sell papers).

Adding fuel to this particular fire, meanwhile, is the incident that occurred at the film's premiere earlier this week when an alleged recording of Bronson's voice noting his approval of the finished film was played to the audience, sparking a subsequent inquiry by the police into its authenticity (the whole thing has the whiff of a controversy-seeking PR stunt).

But if there's a certain element of myth-making in Bronson, it's presented in such a way as to deconstruct and interrogate that myth. It almost doesn't matter that Bronson is a real person, it's the idea of what he represents culturally that the film is interested in exploring. This is not a film about the systemic failings of the prison system, or a sociological examination of the root causes responsible for turning people into violent offenders. It's not even about the rehabilitative power of art (though it does mockingly flirt with this).

Though it takes us on a twisted trip through Bronson's psyche, it's ultimately using him as a way to self-reflexively explore the allure and thrill of violence, especially to those who only experience it voyeuristically, one step removed from any danger: in other words, those of us in the audience.

Refn maps out these intentions early in the film, when Bronson declares his long-held desire to be famous. Duly framing his story as an audacious vaudeville act, we get Hardy's intensely charismatic, self-aware anti-hero appearing on a stage, capitalising on his gift for wry humour to play an appreciative theatre crowd like a fiddle. Refn deploys this narrative device throughout the film as a primer for scenes of horrifying brutality as Bronson repeatedly fights, bites and battles his way (via the occasional hostage-taking, riot or notoriety-seeking rooftop protest) towards extending his sentence far beyond his original conviction, when he was sentenced at the age of 19 to seven years for armed robbery.

He's a man who seems to have found his natural habitat in the clink, an observation Refn emphasises with scenes that show in comically absurd detail his brief stretches in the outside world, where he has to move back in with his parents and makes amusingly doomed efforts to hold down a steady relationship.

Other details are filled in with a sarcastic, irony-laced narration that deliberately brings to mind Malcolm McDowell's malevolent jester from Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, a film to which Refn also pays tribute via his meticulously crafted compositions and the way he juxtaposes spotlit scenes of prison life with seemingly incongruous classical music or period pop (The Pet Shop Boys' It's a Sin gets a very strange and memorable workout).

As much as Refn retains a precision grip on proceedings, it is Hardy's central performance that holds it together. Physically pumped up like an old-school circus strongman, with a waxed moustache and shaven head to boot, he's scary, larger than life, utterly repellent and utterly magnetic, all at the same time. Pacified by painting one minute, raging like a cornered animal the next, he's a man for whom rehabilitation isn't an option he's willing to take.

The film may present us with the illusion of someone trying to make sense of his life for the benefit of others, but that's all it is – an illusion. Hardy leaves us in little doubt that this is a man so comfortable with his own atavistic impulses he'll do whatever it takes to preserve them, even finding a literal expression for them through the prison arts programme. It's a big, bold outrageous storm of a performance, that in some ways recalls the audaciousness of Daniel Day Lewis's Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York and Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood. If there's any justice in the world, it should see Hardy fast-tracked to the A-list.