Michael Peterson – better known by his bare-knuckle boxing name of Charles Bronson – is perhaps the most notorious prisoner in Great Britain. Originally arrested for the armed robbery of a post office in 1974, he has spent during the intervening years a mere 122 days outside of prison walls. Repeated fighting incidents and a seemingly endless string of hostage-taking dramas have meant that Peterson is unlikely ever to be released.
Despite this, the man repeatedly lambasted by the British tabloids has become a published author, award-winning poet and artist and a mini-celebrity. This has culminated in a biopic of his life, courtesy of Pusher director Nicolas Winding Refn entitled, simply, Bronson.
Bronson is not your usual life-story picture. Refn takes a highly-stylised, often-surreal approach. Bronson is shown narrating the story, often on a theatre stage in front of an audience. Other times, he is accompanied by animated characters from his own artwork created behind bars. Through it all, we follow a man who is purely egotistical, incredibly dangerous and clearly very damaged as he moves from one battle to the next.
Portraying the bald, mustachioed criminal is a near-unrecognisable Tom Hardy, muscled-up and committed to the distinctive voice and quirky mannerisms of his subject. It is the role of a lifetime and Hardy commits fully, delivering a spectacular performance that is not only one of the best of its year, but one of the best of any year. In a just world, Hardy would receive every award going, but a small indie UK flick is unlikely to garner such attention. Which is a shame, because this is star-making stuff.
Refn is the other trump card of the film who, along with Director of Photography Larry Smith, shows off some wonderful composition and lighting choices to make Bronson a constant visual treat. This is combined with some shrewd and playful musical choices to make a string of memorable scenes, such as the inmates of a mental asylum dancing together, erratically, to the Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s A Sin”.
Despite all of the prolific talent in front and behind the camera, Bronson suffers from a big weakness – the subject himself. The story of the movie is limited by the story of the man. After all, he has been in prison punching people for more than three decades. Despite Refn and Hardy’s work, Bronson pretty much says all it is going to say in the first 30 minutes and then it is a fairly repetitive string of scenes of an often-naked Bronson punching various people. Although, to be fair, these are wonderfully filmed and performed, but the thin nature of the narrative does prevent the film from engaging on more than a surface level.
A superbly-made movie featuring one of THE boldest performances of recent years, Bronson is excellent entertainment, but perhaps too hollow to achieve lasting greatness.
Bronson is available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.