Though they are virtually unknown to Americans, "The Krays" were the most notorious gangsters in the history of England, and this movie about them is guaranteed to chill audience members to the bone.
Twin brothers Ronald and Reginald Kray, played by Gary and Martin Kemp (best known as musicians with the rock group Spandau Ballet), were racketeers who ruled London's East End during the 1950s and '60s.The film begins with their childhood, where the Kray brothers develop a special "twin" relationship, a sort of psychic attachment that allows them to feel each other's wavelength and understand each other even when nothing is expressed verbally.
This is something often attributed to twins, but in this instance it's an instrument for evil. That's not a new movie concept, but it's all the more disturbing here for being based on a true story.
As they grow older, with a propensity toward criminal activity and causing pain to those who cross them, Reggie seems to have a desire to pull away and go straight on occasion - especially after he marries his true love. But Ronnie has a hold over him and steers him toward the worst of his instincts.
As much as a portrait of their reign of blood and terror over London's East End, however, the film is also about their relationship with their loving, if naive mother, Violet, played by veteran British actress Billie Whitelaw.
Violet loves her sons so much she is unwilling to believe the newspapers, the talk about town or even what she sees with her own eyes. And she is very much a hands-on, take-charge woman whose husband is a bit of a wimp.
The relationships between the two brothers and between them and their mother are the primary focus of the film, but there is also a revealing look at how crime in Great Britain changed once the Krays took over.
As they grow up and observe the rackets, Ronnie and Reggie take them over by sheer brute force. They are nastier than anyone else so everyone wants to stay out of their way.
Initially it is their arrogance that puts them on top, but, of course, it is also that arrogance that eventually causes their downfall.
It's a fascinating story, with shocking bursts of violence - two scenes in particular - that are gruesome and may be off-putting to some of the film's potential audience.
Despite the filmmakers' obvious feeling that the violence was necessary in context, it gets so gory at times that it seems a bit gratuitous.
But in general the script, direction and performances are solid, with especially good turns by the Kemp brothers as the Kray brothers and Whitelaw as their mother.
"The Krays" is rated R for violence, sex, male nudity, profanity, drugs and homosexuality.
- THE KEMP BROTHERS are not twins, though they play twin brothers in "The Krays."
In a telephone interview from their New York hotel suite during a promotion tour, the Kemps agreed that making the movie helped them better understand the special relationship twins must have.
The film marks the first starring roles for Gary and Martin Kemp, though between them they have some 30 TV and movie credits. They are best known, however, as musicians, having founded the British rock group Spandau Ballet.
Martin said there was never any question about which Kemp brother would play which Kray brother. "There wasn't really. It all sort of fell into place. Everybody said Gary should play Ronnie and I should play Reggie. I think it comes down to the way their relationship compares to ours, in the way Ronnie seemed to be the older of the two twins. And, obviously, Gary's 30 and I'm 28 - so it all fell into place."
Gary added, "As an actor you have to do a lot of self-analysis. You have to know about yourself to distort yourself. We asked a lot of questions of each other, asked a lot of truths. We wanted to know what it's really like to be brothers. We wanted to know what it's like to be twins, especially the sibling rivalry part of it. We don't really feel that. We like to see each other succeed."
Martin says, "We were just offered (`The Krays') because they wanted them to be played by brothers and there are very few acting brothers, much less London cockney boys. So they came to us and we screen tested and they just offered it to us."
The Kemps have always been quite close and agree that making the movie brought them even closer. "You can't compare the two, though, not really," Martin said. "Being twins has to be something really special. It doesn't compare to being brothers at all."
"What made us nervous," Gary said, "was (that) these characters are so well-known (in England). There's no film footage, but people have fixed images of them in their minds. They're larger than life, folklore.
"Meeting Ronnie (Kray in the Broadmoor prison) helped to give me confidence. I think he's been told for the last 20 years a movie would be made, but he never asked to read the script and he was very free with information. He told me explicitly how he felt after he killed George Cornell, and I used that in the movie."
Gary said he got so into the role that when he finished the film he went on the road for four months with Spandau Ballet to exorcise the character.
Asked about some particularly violent moments that seem to go over the top, the brothers said they recognize there is some savage brutality but feel it is not gratuitous.
"The way the film was set up, it was always in danger of glorifying Ronnie and Reggie," said Martin. "The way they look, the charisma these two guys had, there was the danger of making them too attractive. So the way to make that repulsive was the violence. To make the violence repulsive is to make it realistic. But it's not an action-paced film, like a `Lethal Weapon' kind of violence."
Martin also has specific feelings for his own character on a sympathetic level. "I think Reggie is a much sadder case than Ronnie. Reggie, maybe at the age of 19 or 20, would have gone on the straight and narrow. It was mainly due to his brother Ron that he pulled back into that idea of violence. Ronnie needed the two of them to stay together. Reggie was on a complete death wish after (his wife) died and that was the perfect moment to bond them in murder."
"Ironically," Gary added, "I think it's a film that says a lot for women, although they may not be drawn to it initially. Gangster films normally tend to make you feel how great it must be to be a gangster. But I think this film, because it's from a woman's point of view (that of the Krays' mother), shows how futile they are, all those games of egos that men play. The women have to do the real fighting to keep the family fed and loved."
Martin said they don't plan to give up Spandau Ballet, but music may take a back seat to acting for a time.