I haven't been this excited in a movie theatre since watching IL DIVO. I had that same feeling of watching a movie made by a director steeped in cinema, subverting the conventional biopic form, showcasing a charismatic lead performance in a movie with breathtaking visual style. And as with IL DIVO, the audience is forced into an uncomfortable relationship with the subject of the film: captivated by the charisma of a fundamentally despicable character. Not that you can really put Andreotti in the same category as Charles Bronson. The former was a Machiavellian politician of almost evil genius: the latter is Britain's most violent prisoner (re-named after the Hollywood actor), still detained at Her Majesty's pleasure, whose serially pyschotic exploits are tabloid-fodder, turning him into an icon of savagery.
Nicolas Winding Refn's movie opens with Bronson as icon: the bald head, the ludicrous drooping mustache, the exaggerated accent, the mental stare, the bare-knuckle boxer's physique. Tom Hardy's transformation is astonishing. He dominates the screen both with his physical heft and psychological menace. A vicious punching is never more than a second away. Framed against a black back-drop, Hardy's Bronson is the inarticulate narrator of his own life story. The movie proceeds in broadly linear picaresque fashion. Here's Mickey Peterson, the sweet child of patently normal, middle-class parents. Here's Mickey as a school-boy, throwing a desk at his teacher, for no apparent reason than that he feels like it. Here's Mickey getting banged up for armed robbery. Here's Mickey drugged up in a mental asylum until he tries to murder a fellow prisoner and get back to a normal prison. Here's Bronson taking his art teacher hostage. Here's Bronson howling, feral in solitary.
Bronson relates all this with a matter-of-factness that denies the audience the psychological theorising that is the typical currency of the genre. A boy is born with a predilection for being violent. Why burden ourselves with liberal angst? Bronson mocks the very notion of trying to understand, pulling a sucker-punch with a scene in which he starts crying on first getting banged up, then turns to the audience and mocks them for being taken in. These music-hall acts, in which Bronson, made up like a Pierrot, acts out his life for a tuxedo'd audience, are the most sinister in the film - more sinister than the violence. Because it's then that we see Bronson as agent of his situation rather than as feral thug. He wants to be inside. He wants to be famous for being brutish. He's upset when the system doesn't collude with his fantasy. He's playing us.
Of course, as he partially acknowledges, he also gets played. In engineering his iconic status he turns himself into a pantomime act: violence as comedy, tabloid-fodder, at core, pathetic. The prison governor says this many times. Bronson adopts the painted eyelashes of Kubrick's Alex. The director colludes - with Kubrickian use of a classical score and carefully framed tableaux. The film is spectacular to look at. Bronson has turned himself into a spectacle. But in the final analysis, he has become a clown.
The genius of this film is to acknowledge the iconic nature of Bronson without glorifying his acts. Again and again, he is beautifully filmed - he commands the screen - doing the most unspeakable things. He is transfixing. But at the same time, the movie subverts his iconic status. When he's bare-knuckle boxing, it's never to a big audience. When he asks for more money, his manager cuts him down to size: "You just pissed on a man in the the middle of nowhere". In the same segment, the movie shows Bronson as a ridiculous cuckold. When told his girlfriend is in love with another man he goes out and steals her a ring. When told she's already engaged, he doesn't go out and murder the bloke, he meekly congratulates her. And the movie starts and finishes with Bronson reduced to a caged animal.
The resulting film is stunning to look at, features an award-worthy performance from Tom Hardy and walks the perfect line between fascination and adulation. It's a giant leap forward for Nicholas Winding Refn, building on the dark humour and bathos of the PUSHER trilogy - creating a work of force. Definitely the best film of the year to date.
BRONSON played Sundance 2009 and is on release in the UK.