Britain’s most violent prisoner. That’s something to aspire to, no? Well, maybe not for a sane person, but for career sociopath, Michael Peterson (aka; Charlie Bronson), it seemed like the only attainable goal in his quest for fame. Now, thanks to the heavily stylized biopic, Bronson, Peterson’s gained the worldwide notoriety he’s so very much desired, whether he truly deserves it or not.
Tom Hardy stars as the mercurial Peterson, a Luton-born tough who’d spent the better part of his formative years engaged in bouts of fisticuffs with everyone from school chums to police officers. Redubbed Charlie Bronson by his fight promoter during a brief career as a bare-knuckle boxer, Peterson is arrested at the age of 22 for an ill-conceived post office robbery (in which he got 26 quid for his troubles), and sentenced to 7 years behind bars. While inside, “Bronson” finds his calling, and set his sights on becoming Britain’s most notorious prisoner. Through a series of cleverly cut montages and narration, we watch as Bronson’s 7 year hitch is extended to 14, as the prisoner is bounced from penitentiary to penitentiary, doing everything in his power to prove that he belongs behind bars. Much to his horror, the system misinterprets his love for prison life as mental illness, and transfers Bronson to a psychiatric facility where, drugged and defanged, as it where, he is deemed rehabilitated and released. Bronson manages to stay out of trouble for exactly 69 days before yet another robbery sees him back behind bars where he can continue to “sharpen his tools”.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn in true Kubrickian style, punctuated by bursts of ultraviolence set to classical music, and dotted with wicked black humor, comparisons to A Clockwork Orange aren’t only inevitable, it seems, but very much welcome. Much like in Kubrick’s masterpiece, Refn creates a drastic juxtaposition between Bronson’s two worlds. Outside of prison, he is surrounded by colorfully eccentric supporting characters, garishly designed sets, and a general sense of chaos, and Bronson is overwhelmed by it all, just as the viewer is. Behind bars, in the grimy and claustrophobic confines of his cell, life is not nearly as confusing or stimulating. In here, Bronson is in his element; he’s in control, and Hardy does an amazing job of showing us how Bronson reacts to these two disparate worlds. In one, he’s as meek as a lamb, soft-spoken, and even a bit skittish. In the other, however, he’s a larger-than-life cartoon of a man, boisterous and confident and in charge. Hardy, a solid actor probably best known to American audiences as the Picard clone, Shinzon, in “Star Trek: Nemesis”, proves an absolute force in the role, and, by taking the full-on method actor approach that included gaining 65 pounds of muscle and spending a great deal of time with his subject, delivers what is arguably one of the finest performances of 2009 – one that, alone, is worth persevering through the somewhat dawdling pace and occasional self-indulgence of Refn’s film.
Magnolia sentences Bronson to solid 1.85:1 1080p transfer that retains the grit and grain of the film’s grungy aesthete. This isn’t a pretty transfer, but it’s how the film is supposed to look, and that’s all that matters. The image quality varies from scene to scene as Refn used different filmstocks and media to tell his story, so, while some moments buzz with an overabundance of detail-obscuring grain, others are crisp and clean, and well defined. Overall, the color palette is generally subdued, limited to grays and whites and blacks, but, in certain scenes (such as Bronson’s mother’s tchotcke-filled abode or his uncle’s gaudy “bachelor pad”) colors are vibrant. While it’s nothing you’ll use to show off the medium, Bronson’s transfer is exactly as it should be.
The DTS HD 5.1 soundtrack is a thunderous, well-mixed affair, with robust bass and crisp highs. I did have a fair amount of difficulty finding a suitable volume with which to hear the dialogue without inciting the wife into a full-blown rage, but, once said levels were achieved, I found the overall experience quite pleasing if not entirely immersive. The sound design on the film is somewhat sparse, with more focus on the music that accompanies the images rather than discrete effects and directional sounds. They’re there, mind, but not in obvious fashion, and, seeing as how much of the film features long sequences of dialogue-free moments set to lush and booming classical numbers, I’m not complaining.
Extras are fairly comprehensive, but, sadly, all presented in SD. We get a very long recording of the real Bronson chatting it up in The Bronson Monologues, but the recording quality is barely passable, and I gave up trying to figure out what he was saying less than half-way through. We also get nearly an hour’s worth of interviews with cast and crew, as well as a Making Of, featuring even more interviews with friends/family of the titular character. It would have been nice to maybe get some input from those not seemingly as enamored with Bronson – perhaps some of his victims or members of the corrections department, but that would probably fly in the face of the whole anti-hero angle the film is going for. Rounding out the extras are more interviews with Hardy about the training regimen used to bulk up for the role, Behind the Scenes footage, and trailers for this and other Magnolia releases (the sole HD extras).
Bronson is borderline irresponsible stuff in the way it sensationalizes and humanizes (and, to an extent, makes a hero out of) a man who, by all accounts, is a dangerously disturbed individual. It’s probably even more irresponsible in that Hardy does such a wonderful job in the role that he, like Eric Bana in the aforementioned Chopper, makes Bronson a much more colorful and charismatic character than the man probably is in real life (although, to hear Hardy speak of him, Bronson is very much the character he is playing, here). While the film slows to a crawl in its second half, and Refn plays a bit fast and loose with history, it’s visually impressive stuff (if not entirely derivative). It’s a shame that it can’t maintain the fevered energy of its first act, but Hardy’s performance is so accomplished and magnetic that he carries the film on his broad shoulders throughout its lulls, and the result is a flawed-yet-riveting character piece.