Director Nicolas Winding Refn chronicles the life of Charles Bronson (Tom Hardy), not the celebrated American actor, but the man who became Britain’s most notorious prisoner. Born Michael Peterson, Bronson displayed a lust for violence at an early age. Bronson’s penchant for fighting, and aversion to obeying the law, eventually leads him to a prison sentence. While most would see prison as punishment, Bronson viewed it as a training ground to perfect his fighting skills. Shuffled from prison to prison, Bronson begins to make a name for himself while the financial cost to tax payers skyrockets. What compels Bronson to fight so much? What does he hope to achieve? These are questions that only Bronson himself seems to know the answers to.
As I mentioned earlier, Bronson is a film that succeeds solely on the performance of Tom Hardy. Bringing a raw energy to the role, Hardy manages to make Bronson both menacing and oddly fascinating. Hardy commits to the role in a way that few actors would dare attempt. His performance allows the first half of the film to really explore Bronson’s state of mind. Refn wisely sets a section of the film inside a theatre to illustrate the fact that Bronson, in his own mind, is an entertainer putting on a show for the world.
The problem with Refn’s film is that it becomes repetitive fairly quickly. This is demonstrated from the moment Bronson is released from prison for a short period of time. Despite throwing in a few colourful characters here and there, most notably Paul Daniel (Matt King) who steals the few scenes he is in, Refn does not have any other insight about Bronson other than the fact that Bronson sees himself as a celebrity. Sure there are a few scenes with Alison (Juliet Oldfield) to show that Bronson is capable of love, but most of the film consist of Bronson getting into fights and talking about his self-perceived celebrity status. As a result, the second half lags greatly and feels much longer than it should have been.
Even when the film tries to redeem itself by offering a glimpse into Bronson’s new found interest in art, it never gets past the surface level. While Refn finds some creative ways of displaying the artwork on screen, he quickly goes back to his safety blanket of showing Bronson as a mad man who thought he was famous. While it is very possible that the real-life Bronson was mad and had a weird obsession with celebrity, this does not necessarily translate into a great film. By the end of Bronson I felt like I had not really learned much about the man I had just spent an hour and a half with. Hardy’s performance couple with Refn’s visual style in the first half is worth a recommendation alone. Yet, the repetitive nature of the second half really shows how thin on substance Bronson really is.