IFFR 2009: BRONSON Review
[This review originally ran with the film's appearance at the Rotterdam film festival and re-appears now with the screening at Fantastic Fest.]
We've spent a lot of words already on Nicolas Winding Refn's "Bronson" so to say this title was anticipated is an understatement. In Europe, the wait is over though: "Bronson" was released last week in the United Kingdom, with wide releases in other countries shortly to follow. And it premiered of course at Sundance, where it got really good word of mouth too.
And, goodie, it's also at the International Film Festival Rotterdam.
All of this went through my mind when I entered the cinema, trying to shield myself a bit from over-hyping the movie to myself so as to avoid imminent disappointment.
I needn't have bothered though: "Bronson" is such a unique piece of work that it defies whatever expectations of it you have. And while it didn't blow me away, I was thoroughly entertained and fascinated by the character study presented to us by both Refn and lead actor Tom Hardy.
The latter one should prepare to clear some space on his mantelpiece, because his performance as Britain's most violent prisoner is bound to get him several awards...
Full review after the break!
Charles Bronson (actual name Michael Petersen, but Bronson was his nick as a streetfighter) has served more time in British prison than any other current prisoner, including murderers. While his arrests are based on things like robbery and he (so far) hasn't killed anyone his sentence keeps getting extended because he is violent.
Very, very violent...
Because that's what Charles Bronson is, and all he wants to be: famous for being himself, the most violent prisoner in the system.
Some influences are more apparent than others. As Bronson himself might say: "Mention Stanley Kubrick one more time and you'll get smacked in the face, cunt!"
Because everyone and his mother here at Rotterdam keeps referring to Stanley Kubrick when talking about this film, especially "A Clockwork Orange". To be honest, they might have a point: Refn uses stylish, sometimes abstract or even absurd sequences to describe his view on what makes Charlie Bronson tick, and isn't afraid of classical music either. I even heard someone refer to "Bronson" as "the most Kubrick movie since Kubrick died". Take that, Steven Spielberg!
Then again, if you're going to use a role model (and I'm not so sure as the rest that Refn does) there are worse sources than Stanley Kubrick, especially if the end result is as good as this.
While Charles Bronson is an actual person currently in prison, and the movie is based in (if not on) facts, Nicolas Winding Refn doesn't go for the traditional biopic way of telling the facts in a chronological order, but has his version of Bronson present his story, circus or cabaret style, to an unseen theatre audience. It works marvelously because physically Charles Bronson resembles the classic circus strongman, muscular, baldheaded, moustached, bending iron on stage. A (very!) buffed up Tom Hardy portays him with a flair and charisma not unlike Daniel Day Lewis' "Bill the Butcher" in Scorsese's "Gangs of New York", and like that character he just radiates violence.
What follows is a loose retelling of some of the events Bronson was involved in, as seen through his eyes. Going through life in a detached and senseless way, Bronson only really becomes alive in prison, when he finds out that fighting guards makes you a celebrity amongst the other prisoners. From then on he makes a career out of being a violent prisoner, and almost elevates that into a form of art.
With a setup like that you might think this film wil be shockingly violent, but surprise surprise, it isn't. Sure there is lots of fighting and it's shown in a very gritty way, but none of it is too unsettling. What might upset people more is the amount of male nudity on display, courtesy of Tom Hardy. Bronson apparently prefers to fight in the nude, wearing only some skin cream for protection, and while the movie doesn't go for the full monty-shots it doesn't exactly shy away from them either.
(Note to self: festival catalogues use jargon. "A physical role" apparently means the actor goes full frontal.)
Whichever part you feel the most uncomfortable with, it's worth enduring it for "Bronson" is filled with imaginative and memorable imagery.
Bronson explaining some of the historical details as a harlequin character...
Bronson, toned like a marble statue and painted black, waiting for a fight to begin...
Bronson waking up after a fight in yet another torture device meant to heal him, restrain him or often both...
Yes, every scene has Bronson in it, and this is why Tom Hardy is going to become mighty famous. He has to carry the movie from the first shot till the last, and not only does he manage to do this, he makes it look easy. His performance here is nothing short of stellar. Nicolas Winding Refn does the rest with some great use of colors and making the most of the available sets.
In the end the movie describes Bronson's character but doesn't explain it. I'm not blaming the movie for it though: how CAN you explain someone like that? But like with Andrew Dominic's "Chopper" it does present you with a very entertaining look at a very odd and dangerous person. And Refn made his movie even flashier.
Now if only they can get the real Charlie Bronson to do a commentary track on the DVD...