Sunday 18 July 2010, by
This theme is a chance to look back at what to me was one of the best films of 2009. Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s most mainstream effort since the Pusher trilogy is a surrealist portrait of one of Britain’s most notorious prisoner, Michael Peterson or as he liked to be called, Charles Bronson, whose miserably comical attempt at robbing a post office in 1974 lands him in prison. Originally meant to serve a seven-year sentence he is still behind bars, and has spent 30 of those 36 years in solitary confinement. So what can be done in the way of drama, tension and entertainment out of three decades of a man in a cell? How to draw the crowds in to watch a Danish director’s vision of a man many of them have never heard of? Perhaps surprisingly, the captions on the film’s posters, “Britain’s most infamous prisoner”, “Britain’s longest serving prisoner”, “Britain’s most violent man”, served as basic explanations of who this Bronson person actually is to potential audience members, probably wondering why the man on the poster, bar the moustache, looks nothing like the only Charles Bronson they were familiar with and had no idea Britain’s prison system was harbouring some bloke who shared his name.
Despite his continuous efforts to make his mark, quite a large number of people -including myself- were still clueless as to who he is, so I will start by congratulating the editing team behind the trailer: a couple of minutes of a massively impressive Tom Hardy, clowns, fights, war paint and make-up all to the beat of the Bet Shop Boy’s It’s a Sin. You would expect a trailer like that to encapsulate the best bits, but the film is basically an adrenalin-fuelled, beautifully structured 90-minute version of that.
Refn’s artistic choice was to stay true to the man himself without using pop psychology. Critics have argued that the film lacks insight into the character and that we are at a loss to understand his true motivations. Petersen was born into a middle-class, run of the mill family, maybe he was bullied at school, witnessed a car crash, had his artistic dreams smashed by a heartless teacher ripping up one of his early doodles or, a favourite on film forums, he was compensating for his small(ish) penis (even though it’s Hardy’s genitals we get a glimpse of and not Bronson’s. To be fair the audience may get this impression from the fact that he had put on a massive amount of weight and thus looked a little disproportionate). Some of his violent impulses were more than probably a result of his incarceration but overall, Refn ploughs through with his choice to focus on Bronson’s own words and the way in which he chooses to present himself. Bronson narrates via voice-overs for most of the film and occasionally through a clown-like address, dressed and made up like a cross between the Joker and Freddy Starr (ate my hamster) to an empty auditorium. Refn respectfully grants him the platform for performance and fame he clearly craves and yet manages to avoid over-indulging in sympathy for a sadistic and violent man. Coupling these moments of greatness with bits of him pummelling patients, prisoners and everybody else restores the balance so to speak. Although we are rightly encouraged to condemn the ridiculous sentence he received and although his unwavering sense of self-promotion and creativity at time commands a certain level of respect, he doesn’t particularly come out of this a hero.Tom Hardy’s performance has been universally praised and rightly so even by the film’s detractors. The other performances were more than commendable, especially Matt King’s, who I didn’t think could be believable as anyone other than Super Hans but he nails the campy boxing coach.
Lest we forget, Bronson the film features one of the best “macabre party scene”, which involves half a dozen patients gyrating to It’s a sin in a cordoned-off bit of a room during the local asylum’s disco night. I realise I am basically applauding possibly lobotomised patients being ridiculed but it does constitute one of the few moments which hint more explicitly at the ways in which the authorities were complicit in Bronson’s cycle of violent behaviour.
Overall, a beautiful film, which presents its protagonist as true to himself as possible and lets the audience make up its mind as to what to think of Charles Bronson the prisoner.
Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009