“I make no bones about it, I really was… a horrible, violent, nasty man. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it either… See you at the Oscars.”
I rather envy those people who have been able to reinvent themselves from the name up. Charles Bronson, born Michael Gordon Peterson, is a brutal, British example of the self-mythologising creature. A haywire prototype that exists outside the normal channels, and a brilliant example of what an errant personality can achieve, even under heavy constraint.
Whilst most tall-story personalities are at least given the kind of life we all share as a stage, Charles Bronson has had solitary confinement, and the rooftops of British prisons. He’s managed to become a tea-drinking muscle-monster of British legend (2,500 press-ups a day), while barely spending any time outside the walls of our gaols.
He has also never killed anyone.
That fact appears in the very middle of the recent film, Bronson, for a fleeting moment. I felt as if it wasn’t stressed enough: for all the craziness, the hostage-taking, the riots and fisticuffs, Bronson has never taken a life, which seems to set his myth apart from the other nightmarish denizens of our deepest pits. It’s a vital aspect of the context of Bronson’s thirty-four years of incarceration: that he is violent within self-set boundaries. The working-class gentleman lunatic, with his moustaches, his gladiatorial strength, and his principles.
The film has a special kind of cinematic ugliness to it, and the lead actor, Tom Hardy, does well to fill out the eccentric profile of the man. He juggles both the grinning lunacy, the glee of violence, and the bruising of punishment with extreme care. Hardy, as Bronson, also narrates, via a series of fantasy-stage-set performances, which set the tone of the film as firmly within Bronson’s own bizarre worldview: celebrity-meets-thuggery-as-performance-art. The clown and the circus strongman warped by the invisible force-fields of fame.
The film captures some of the bizarre cruelty of Bronson’s life, his own unpredictability, and the difficulties of the system charged with containing him. Yet it does not seem to express what matters about the actual story of Bronson’s existence, which I would argue is far more interesting than the stylised prison theatre we get to see on screen.
I was waiting for something of Broadmoor and the rooftop protests from Bronson’s perspective, and treated to little more than a slideshow. (I suspect Bronson’s chimney toppling antics were the first time child-me had been notified of the existence of prisons, or of their inhabitants, and so I was awaiting some kind of extra loop of connection with those images.)
Some of Bronson’s more outlandish moments were neglected by this script, and his early life as a circus strongman and bare-knuckle boxer was remixed into a fictional reworking of the few weeks he did spend out of prison in the 1980s and early ’90s. It’s as if the film was mostly interested in its own caricature of Britain’s most violent prisoner – complete with scintillating soundtrack – and that the production had failed to realise what strange, bloody gold awaited them under the skin of the real man and his world.
There was no need for flights of cinematic fancy when the reality is so colourful and disturbing. The movie seems to avoid some of Bronson’s finest lines – such as his absurd demands in hostage situations – and to avoid any real insight into why he performed some of those bizarre acts of violence. Inevitable, I suppose, given that Bronson is the (unreliable?) narrator of its proceedings. This is the film of the “fighting name”, rather than the prisoner.
I’m sure Bronson really is proud of the film, because it is a broad extension to his personal reinvention. To be genuinely faithful to the man, rather than the alter-ego, would have meant creating a film that reflected the decades of solitude, and the astonishing loneliness that so many years must have wrought. Unimaginable boredom and silence punctuated by moments of incredible, outlandish violence. The first part of that, at least, is something film doesn’t articulate all that well: deliberately so in this case. And Bronson, the movie, is all the worse for it.