Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn is best known for his Pusher trilogy – exposing a seamy side of Copenhagen that tourists strolling the Tivoli Gardens never dream of – and the intriguing thriller Fear X, which crossed Memento with Blow Up as John Turturro searched for his wife’s killer. His first British film, Bronson, takes an equally oblique look at the man billed as ‘Britain’s most notorious criminal’.
Charles Bronson, born Michael Peterson, adopted the name of the craggy movie star because his fight promoter thought it sounded suitably butch. He was originally sentenced to seven years for a bungled armed robbery in 1974, when he was 21. But his tendency to beat the shit out of warders, fellow-cons and anyone who gets his goat has kept him in jail ever since – barring two brief periods of freedom totalling about four months – and in solitary for 30 of those 34 years.
While in jail he’s developed into a talented, award-winning artist, so Refn takes the hint to treat his whole life as an extreme display of performance art. Bronson (a tour de force portrayal from Tom Hardy) narrates – sometimes in voiceover, sometimes on stage before an appreciative audience, recalling his wilder exploits as a series of punchlines. “When I was a kid, I got into trouble,” he deadpans, as we see him in the classroom beating up a terrified teacher.
Refn’s film often recalls Andrew Dominik’s Chopper, with Eric Bana as a similarly violent and self-mythologising Aussie con. But with his painted face, gleeful grandstanding and bull-necked strut, Bronson’s closest cousin is Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Like Kubrick’s anti-hero, Bronson inspires equal reactions of fascination and revulsion. You might not like him, but you’ll find it impossible to look away.
The career of a real-life recidivist hardman gets a highly stylised theatrical treatment, matched by virtuoso direction and a career-making lead performance.