I once read an interview with Michael Hutchence where he was jokingly asked if he thought INXS could take Guns’n’Roses in fight. I seem to recall he described them as “fucking pushovers”. He was asked the same about UB40, and he was like, “no way.” This planted the seed in my mind that, in general, the wussier a band’s music, the tougher these people are in real life. Per this theory, the members of Spandau Ballet should be the scariest people on earth.
As if to confirm this theory, members and real-life brothers Gary and Martin Kemp prove to be terrifying as the leads in 1990’s The Krays. They portray the UK’s all-time most notorious gangsters, Ronald and Reginald Kray, respectively. You simply wouldn’t believe these are the guys behind that 80’s yacht rock staple “True”.
Even more surprising is the movie is largely focused on the women in their lives. Billie Whitelaw, as their mother, is the center of their lives and a force of nature. Early on, we see her confronting a young doctor in a hospital and you just know this poor guy doesn’t stand a chance.
Susan Fleetwood, as her sister, is even more indomitable, lifting that doctor by his collar and threatening him to his face. A key monologue she has concerns the plight of women in WWII, with all the abortions and other trials they had to face while the men responsible did whatever they wanted. “Men. They end up heroes or monsters. Either way, they win.”
The sisters’ mother is played by Avis Bunnage, who laments at two different points how useless men are. She tells of a time during the war when she went out into the street and just screamed uncontrollably. Not that anybody noticed. As she puts it, “There was a lot of screaming back then.”
Kate Hardie, as Reginald’s eventual wife, finds this group terrifying at first but she will eventually come to understand their frustrations. She will even indulge in her own moment of unrestrained screaming when the pressure becomes too much for her.
Her crisis is her husband. One example of his misplaced affection is his insistence on buying her the clothes he thinks she will like. As she tries to explain to his mother, she is no longer certain of what she likes, only what he says she likes. Her convincing portrayal of an unraveling psyche rings true so thoroughly that it is difficult to watch.
It is strange to think of such ruthless gangsters as being momma’s boys, but they are fiercely protective of Whitelaw. Not that she needs any protection. I fully believed her when she stares down her husband when he is about to strike her: “I swear on my mother’s life, I’ll slit your throat while you’re asleep.” The brothers stand up in solidarity with her, and you just know they would have no qualms with removing their father from the equation.
Needless to say, they have no hesitation when employing violence to enforce their extortion racket and eliminate competitors. The Krays is nowhere near as violent as an American film would be of the same era (Goodfellas was released the same year). Yet it is still surprisingly violent for a UK production of this vintage. While not shown in explicit detail, a man will have a sword (yes, a sword) shoved through the palm of one hand, another man will be stabbed through the eye and yet another will have a “permanent smile” carved on his face. Despite that last act, this is not another Joker original story.
Gary and Martin Kemp are shockingly convincing as the Krays, despite not being twins themselves. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were biological twins, as there is a similarity to them that skews close enough to being identical to cross into the realm of the uncanny. Both actors also carry themselves in a manner that conveys an inner drive for violence kept in place by a hair trigger. Every scene feels shadowed by the potential for it to suddenly explode.
And yet The Krays is an oddly poetic film. It is bookended by Whitelaw telling, in narration, a dream she had where she was a swan, and she can hear children’s voices coming from inside an egg she has laid. There’s also an interesting recurring motif of crocodiles throughout the runtime, and this proves to be an interesting metaphor. This is a movie which subverts expectations, a slightly abstracted look at two of the most violent men London had ever seen, while focusing largely on the women who shaped them, and at least one woman they unintentionally destroyed.
Dir: Peter Medak
Starring Gary Kemp, Martin Kemp, Billie Whitelaw
Watched on Second Sight UK blu-ray (region B)