Bronson is an odd film: compelling in places, ineffectual in parts, it has a number of powerful scenes, but is full of loose ends and strange omissions, with an unconvincing artistic apotheosis at its climax. Most of its problems, though, are pretty much inevitable given the real life story that Pusher-man Nicolas Winding Refn and co-writer Brock Norman Brock are trying to document. Charles Bronson (born Michael Peterson) has spent 34 years out of a 57-year life behind bars, 30 years of which in solitary confinement. His criminal career consists of little more than a couple of unspectacular robberies, but the time served is down to some idiosyncratic character traits, such as: a) a tendency to beat the holy crap out of anyone around him at any time for ill-defined reasons; b) a complete failure on his part to comprehend why this could be a problem.
Whilst the details of his career as ‘Britain’s most violent prisoner’ are lurid enough to fuel any Brit gangsta flick, the shape of his existence defies any conventional narrative treatment. There is no grand character arc, no rise and fall: ‘bloke gets banged up… stays there’ does not really lend itself to a three-act structure, and a life in solitary offers a limited number of roles for the supporting cast. Nicolas Winding Refn attempts to surmount these problems through aggressive stylisation. We are part of a shadowy audience watching Bronson, an unreliable narrator in variety hall make-up, tell his story. And whilst the settings and dialogue of his tale are authentically grimy, everything else is decidedly non-naturalistic. The performances are mannered, the photography is archly composed, the soundtrack consists of lush classical and synth pop music. Bronson resembles a cross between Andrew Dominik’s 2000 Chopper and Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (DP Larry Smith worked on Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, and on this evidence was paying attention), and is too narrowly restricted to that glib description to prove wholly satisfactory. Its attempts to portray Bronson as an artist without a canvas deprived of his liberty by a cold and uncomprehending world are decidedly undermined by its own depiction of the man as a living train wreck.
The film’s worth mainly lies with its version of Bronson as a terrifying, unpredictable and ludicrous individual utterly lacking in self-awareness, a rebel without a clue, a kidnapper without demands. Tom Hardy is terrific in the part, and the sequences showing his brief period of freedom in 1988 are fantastic, tense and weirdly hysterical. He stomps around Luton in a three-piece brown suit, like a human special effect, fists and body permanently clenched, baffled by even the most mundane domestic interaction. Many of the film’s most vital scenes come from this section. But he was free for only 68 days, and we are soon imprisoned with him again. What a life.