A performer: to be a performer, in British underworld slang, is to have a relish, a flair for violence; to be particularly skilled at putting on the frighteners. It's a term applied to James Fox's gangland enforcer in Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance - and it could also be applied to Charles Bronson aka "Britain's most violent man" as portrayed by Tom Hardy in this bizarre and bracing character study from Nicolas Winding Refn.
We know Bronson, if at all, through tabloid headlines, chronicling his hostage-taking, rooftop protests and distinction as Britain's 'longest serving prisoner'. Refn makes a virtue of his relative anonymity. But even those who thought they knew Bronson might be surprised to learn that the man born Michael Gordon Peterson couldn't have had a more respectable start. Born into an upper-middle class family in Aberystwyth, his uncle was mayor and his parents ran the local Conservative club.
But something went wrong. The bright, gentle boy fell in with a bad lot; he became a bare-knuckle boxer; he robbed a post office for £26.18p. The bungled armed robbery put him in jail for seven years. Initially. For many, a lengthy prison stretch would be the undoing of life as they knew it. But it was the making of Bronson. Everybody's good at something, and in prison he discovered his calling: a gift for chaos.
As shown here, the man is completely unsocialised. The opening scene, a tableau which will be repeated over and over again, features him spattered in blood, feral and naked, cock quivering like a spring, playing human pinball with terrified prison warders until he's eventually overpowered; a bound Promethean. Much of the time, the film resembles one of those panels from 'The Beano', in which whirling fists and feet are glimpsed in a cloud of dust.
He travels from prison to prison as if on eternal vacation. Parkhust is "well worth a visit". At Wormwood Scrubs, "the staff ensure your stay is as memorable as possible". Hostage-taking is just a prescription against boredom. "What do I want...?" he wonders. "Well, what have you got?" Those who've been banged up with him say it's an accurate depiction; although the matter of whether prolonged incarceration exacerbated his behaviour, institutionalised him, is never addressed.
So far, so BritCrime. But anyone expecting another Rise Of The Footsoldier - even McVicar - will be in for a shock. Danish director Refn first came to prominence with the brilliant Pusher Trilogy, gritty and unflinching pseudo-documentaries focusing on the criminal underworld of not-so wonderful Copenhagen. Yet stylistically, Bronson is a universe away from those movies; it's far plainer to see the influence of DP Larry Smith, who also photographed Refn's hyper-real Fear X.
Refn has delivered a weird and wonderful anti-biopic that, like Roeg and Cammell's film before it, explodes the conventions of the genre; a fittingly anarchic approach to linear progression of which the eponymous jailbird would surely approve. Most of these scenes could be shuffled around willy-nilly, which is appropriate: when you've been banged up for as long as Bronson has (34 years, 30 of them in solitary confinement), time probably ceases to have much meaning.
With a classically-weighted score (Wagner, Verdi, Puccini) married to scenes of ultra-violence, this not only pays homage to Kubrick, but also to mavericks like Lindsay Anderson, Peter Greenaway and John Maybury (Love Is The Devil) in its picaresque digressions and painterly aesthetics: a cinematic palate of reds and blacks. Hell colours. Compared with most of the wannabe bad-boys clogging up the arteries of British cinema, this is practically an art installation or contemporary performance piece.
And Charles Bronson, of course, is a first-rate performer, in various meanings of the word. From that attention-grabbing Hollywood-purloined name (actually foisted on him by a boxing promoter) to his way with his fists - and striking artworks, which bear comparison with those of that other outsider-artist Daniel Johnston, and which sell for small fortunes, Bronson has worked as tirelessly as Max Clifford to keep his reputation intact and name in the papers for decades.
Refn even has him orating to us from an Edwardian music hall stage, and miming songs Dennis Potter-style while painted like a harlequin or moustache-twirling circus strongman. It's disturbing, and recalls Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin in The King Of Comedy and Jonathan Pryce channeling Grock the clown in Trevor Griffiths' play 'Comedians'. Also, Freddie Starr in the infamous 2001 Channel 4 documentary 'Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster', in which Starr berated an empty auditorium and laid a wreath onstage to symbolise 'British comedy's passing'.
Starr came across as desperately unhappy, but also largely self-deluding. Bronson is equally deluded and naive. "I gave you magic in there!" he complains, awarded £20 for a bare-knuckle bout. "Magic?" scoffs the promoter. "You just pissed on a gypsy in the middle of nowhere." Elsewhere, a prison governor tells him, "You're ridiculous". He is. But really, he's just a little boy incarcerated inside endlessly replicating walls of muscle, a self-made prison of gristle and bone.
Hardy gets that, and his performance is astonishing; proper Stanislavski. The former slip of a pretty-boy actor has also pulled off one of cinema's most impressive bulk-ups, packing on lbs of muscle. Whether gazing into the distance with a thousand-yard stare, as if awaiting the muse of mayhem to tell him who to hit next, or gleefully cavorting in the theatre of Bronson's imagination, the man's magnetic.
As if to emphasise Bronson's brute manliness, most of the other men in the film are wimpy, airy-fairy types (or creepy paedophiles), and 'Peep Show's' Matt King lends sterling support as Bronson's comically seedy, upper-class boxing promoter Paul; a Withnail in the underworld sporting black leather gloves. "Look, love" he avers, when Michel Peterson first suggests a memorable new name for himself to box under. "Nobody gives a toss about Charlton Heston."
In a movie filled with startling, near-hallucinatory moments - drugged, drooling asylum inmates dancing woozily to The Pet Shop Boys' 'It's A Sin'; Bronson caged in a tiny, medieval-like restricting device, like something from a Francis Bacon - there is a truly remarkable scene toward the end that attempts to throw speculative light on the man's motivations, what really makes him tick. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the filmmakers suggest the answer lies in the creative impulse.
Having taken his prison art teacher Phil (a fabulously camp James Lance) hostage, Bronson demands to hear music. As Delibes' 'Lakmé' is piped over the Tannoy, a swooning naked Bronson, smeared in charcoal and grease, gently bodypaints Phil to resemble a living Magritte, with a bowler hat and apple in his mouth. Might Bronson's violence simply be misdirected creative passion? Is prison really an ersatz canvas, onto which he drips warders' blood like a sociopathic Jackson Pollock?
Well, alright. There's probably an argument for suggesting Bronson's nothing more than a pretentious thriller kitted out with the greatest hits of Classic FM. You could say the same of A Clockwork Orange. Detractors might say it appeals to those who hold that violence is art and vice-versa but would flee from a streetfight. Which would be to truly underestimate such a smart, funny and stylish film. Bronson appeals to the anti-authoritarian in us all.
In a nutshell: Visually and sonically arresting, with a bravura performance by Tom Hardy. At 92 minutes, it's also shorter than a 30-year stretch in solitary.
By Ali Catterall