Films hailing from across the pond can take a while to wash upon our shores. Bronson, by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, was released in Europe in 2008.
Ah well, good things to those who wait. It is based on the true story of recidivist bar-room brawler and mama’s boy Michael Petersen who came during his thirty-odd years in the pen (the majority of which he spent in solitary confinement) to be named England’s most dangerous inmate. Charles Bronson (his ‘fighter name’) is played with bravura and a lack of style by Tom Hardy, a British television actor who might be known to the more discernible American for his turn as Handsome Bob in Guy Ritchie’s Rocknrolla. He also appeared in Black Hawk Down.
Whereas tough guys in Ritchie’s movies cultivate an ethos and team spirit, Bronson is one of the most stripped-bare portrayals of narcissistic male pugnacity I’ve seen in a while (remind you of anyone? Keep reading).
Bronson was brought up in England’s treacherous 1970s industrial suburbia where unemployment was high and rage was institutionalized quickly (funny farms thrived during that difficult period). Similarities with A Clockwork Orange are difficult to avoid, except that in the Stanley Kubrick film, Malcolm McDowell’s character Alex takes a more metaphysical approach to violence, turning it into a philosophy, and therefore a plea–there’s a sense of remorse wedged deep in that character’s pathos. Charlie Bronson does not let us in on his motives–we’re unsure where all this rage comes from. Is this a way to get us closer to the truth? Kubrick wanted us to believe that genius and perhaps even redemption might emerge out of one’s sadistic tendencies.
Refn on the other hand has no qualms about turning his back on Bronson. Our man Bronson appears irremediable and makes no excuses for his frightening knack for pummeling people. But of course it’s more complex than this. Like McDowell’s character, Bronson is balls-out terrifying (well, actually he likes to fight naked so you’ll pardon the pun, I hope) but at the same time he is also magnificent and charismatic whereas Alex often made us squirm.
The linear narrative of Bronson takes us along the entire arc of Petersen’s life, from crib until the parting shot. The first and last scenes directly reference each other. In both our man Charlie is narrowly confined within a cage (and that’s not a prison cell, I promise you that, more like a bird cage. It is, in fact, so narrow that Bronson can only stand up in it). Histories of violence on film often feature ensemble casts or couples going out on rampage. It’s hard to find one character on whom to base a proper film about epic destructiveness. Here, all the credit for the mayhem goes to Charles Bronson. And he acts as the narrator as well.
Many scenes were shot with Brady in a penguin suit and make-up on a grand stage performing his own one-man show before an audience of English bourgeoisie. This is Petersen’s alter ego. He takes us through the early period of Bronson’s life to eventually fade away halfway through the film as the action picks up and Bronson the protagonist is released from jail.
This film is a must-see. ‘Bronson’reaches rather close to the truth of its matter–I highly recommend it.