Bronson (2008)

Bronson first published by Little White Lies, 20th Feb 2009

“You’re a very sweet man, Charlie,” says Irene (Kelly Adams), “but you’ve got no ambition.”

It is hard to know whether to agree or disagree with Irene’s assertions. Charlie (Tom Hardy) may be blessed with a roguish grin and a charismatic naïveté, but he is also ‘Britain’s most violent prisoner’, a pugnacious powderkeg of a con who seizes any opportunity to brawl with the screws. As for ambition, he has that in spades, but it is ambition of a kind that, very much in keeping with these celebrity-obsessed times, never seems to get beyond merely wanting to be famous. 

Charlie finds the path to this ‘calling’ in prison, where his aggression soon wins him the recognition he has been craving – and so he invents for himself a specialised act as the hardman, adopting the ‘fighting name’ of Charles Bronson (he was born Michael Peterson), and repeatedly engineering incidents that bring him into unwinnable conflicts with his captors. There have been many films about prison experience, but Nicolas Winding Refn‘s mannered biopic is the first to examine its incarcerated subject not as a monster or a victim, but rather as an artist – and one who truly suffers for his art, whether through regular beatings or long stints in solitary.

  Ever mindful of his image and its management, Charlie is allowed to fashion his own story, either in ‘raw’ addresses to camera or in full clown’s make-up on an imagined stage before an applauding, tuxedoed audience. That this fractured narration of events, with all its camp bit players and surreal flourishes, is itself cast as just another piece of showmanship merely underlines the elusiveness of the ‘real’ Charlie, a man masked by an actor’s name (and played by yet another actor). Hardy’s Bronson is always, as he puts it, “making a name” for himself, but never so clear on the question of “what as” – and so, asked repeatedly by the prison warden what it is that he wants, Charlie seems unable (or at least unwilling) to answer. 

It becomes, however, increasingly clear that the performance itself is what constitutes the man, and our attention is all that is needed to sustain him. Without that, Charlie is just another battered and bruised figure, alone in a cage. Still, in a film closer to A Clockwork Orange or Blue Velvet than to Chopper, brutal ultraviolence and arthouse oddity make for an arresting mix – while it is impossible to take your eyes off Hardy’s intense serio-comic turn.  

In retrospect: Irredeemable thug or unconventional performance artist? Bronson is hard-hitting either way.

Bonus DVD review (6 July, 2009)

Mag Intro: Michael Peterson reinvents himself as Britain’s most violent prisoner Charles Bronson, even as director Refn refashions hardman biopic conventions into something altogether more artful, elusive and camp. Monologues from the ‘real’ Bronson are included among the extras. 

Review: “As long as my Mum enjoys the film, I’m happy.”

So says the ‘real’ Charles Bronson in a prison phone interview illegally recorded to introduce the world premiere of Nicolas Winding Refn‘s film, and included as an arresting extra on this DVD.

Bronson covers several decades in the life of ‘Britain’s most violent prisoner’ (played electrifyingly by Tom Hardy) – his early years as Michael Peterson, his compulsion to fight battles he cannot win, his long stints in solitary,  and his careful creation of his own celebrity, leading up to the metamorphosis into alter ego Charles Bronson, career convict and ‘insider’ artist. 

Refn shows a healthy disinterest in biopic conventions, preferring to have Bronson ‘himself’, ever the clownish showman, stage a fragmented version of his life before a tuxedoed audience that, just like you and me, claps, gasps and laughs along to the tour-de-force performance. It is an artful blend of hardman viciousness and surreal camp, and while viewers will certainly feel the full force of the film’s impact, they will also, like Bronson’s bewildered wardens, never be quite sure what has hit them. “You can’t pin me down,” as Bronson tells his prison art instructor – and a similarly elusive quality attaches itself to Refn’s heady mix of jailhouse and arthouse.

In the director’s commentary, Refn reassures us that Bronson’s mother did indeed enjoy the film. You will too. Bronson is a prison flick that refuses to confine itself to genre cliché, instead dressing up its insistent antihero in the otherworldly trappings of Kubrick, Lynch and (Kenneth) Anger, and elevating him from hyperviolent thug to punchy performance artist. If that is so wrong, blame society – but in the meantime, just be swept along by both Bronson’s and Refn’s troubled journey towards self-expression.

strap: “You can’t pin me down”: Nicolas Winding Refn’s performative prison flick is the portrait of an (insider) artist as a hard man

Anton Bitel