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Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

12/16/2015

Legend
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil” springs to mind while viewing writer-director Brian Helgeland’s fact-based crime drama Legend (Universal).

Initially interesting but quickly exhausted, this morally ambiguous descent into London’s underworld of the 1960s offers diminishing returns to those few mature viewers for whom it can be judged acceptable.

Helgeland draws on John Pearson’s 1972 book The Profession of Violence to dramatize the rise and fall of terrible twins Reggie and Ronnie Kray (both played by Tom Hardy). Famous in their own time — and the stuff of local folklore ever since — the Beatles-era heyday of these volatile gangsters saw them mixing with celebrities while carrying out a reign of small-scale terror across the British capital.

Oddly enough, the basic conflict around which the film is shaped is a familiar, almost cliched dynamic within purely fictional treatments of a life of wrongdoing: As vicious but stable ex-boxer Reggie falls for Frances Shea (Emily Browning), a lass from the siblings’ working-class neighbourhood, she tries to reclaim him for decency. But psychotic Ronnie, whose release from an asylum was gained by threatening his psychiatrist, continually draws his loyal-to-a-fault brother back to the dark side.

Hardy delivers a remarkable performance, shuttling efficiently between glamorous bad boy Reggie and Ronnie’s eccentric persona in which the soul of a serial killer is strained through the manner of a snuffling bank clerk. As for the predictable interludes of wild violence, although graphic and intense, they are placed within a serious context.

Yet Helgeland does engage in some double dealing, inviting moviegoers to revel in the possibilities for uncontrolled mayhem simmering constantly below the surface. His script’s outlook on Ronnie’s homosexuality is equally ambivalent.

Ronnie’s ahead-of-its-time frankness about his inclination — which startles, among others, Angelo Bruno (Chazz Palminteri), a visiting emissary from Mafia kingpin Meyer Lansky — is poised as both comical and, implicitly at least, courageous. But his actual exploits, only cautiously shown on screen, are portrayed as just another dirty strand in a vast tangle of corruption.

The young men Ronnie keeps with his ill-gotten gains have no genuine feelings for him. And when high ranking government officials, most prominently Conservative peer Lord Boothby (John Sessions), get mixed up in his lascivious doings, their waywardness becomes a means of thwarting Scotland Yard.

After merrily playing the game of asking, alternately, “Isn’t this terrible?” and “Isn’t this terribly fun?” — a gambit which plays both on the audience’s ethical strength and on their countervailing weakness — Helgeland suddenly shifts gears at the last minute by having Frances, who serves as our narrator throughout, solemnly inform us that there is no real morality to be found in the world.

Such nihilism, however, is not in keeping with the overall tone. If it were, the Krays’ outrageous behaviour would lose its ability to shock, an effect on which the picture consistently depends.

All these elements require that viewers come to Legend equipped with the safeguard of a well-developed, Gospel-immersed conscience — as well as a willingness to undertake the detailed work of moral discernment. Yet the tedium into which Helgeland’s sluggish account lapses, after the first half-hour or so, will make this necessary exercise of vigilance feel like largely unrewarded toil.

The film contains brief but gruesome violence with considerable gore, a discreet portrayal of perverse actions and decadent sensuality, mature themes, including suicide and homosexuality, at least one use of profanity and pervasive rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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In the Heart of the Sea

By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — With In the Heart of the Sea (Warner Bros.), the real-life events that helped inspire Herman Melville’s classic 1851 novel Moby-Dick become the basis for a polished and exciting adventure directed by Ron Howard.

Despite some grim plot developments and other material precluding blanket endorsement for any but grownups, Howard’s film will make fit and even valuable fare for most mature adolescents.

In adapting Nathaniel Philbrick’s eponymous history text, published in 2000 and subtitled The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, screenwriter Charles Leavitt sets out with ambitions as lofty as Melville’s own. “How does a man come to know the unknowable?” the novelist, played by Ben Whishaw, asks in the picture’s opening moments.

To find out, Melville has journeyed to Nantucket, Massachusetts, where he hopes to interview Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last survivor of the ill-fated — and already famous — 1820 expedition that proved to be the Essex’s undoing. But the haunted, alcoholic old salt is reluctant to open up about the harrowing experiences of his youth (during which he’s portrayed by Tom Holland).

The tale he eventually weaves is one of hubris and greed — whale oil was the primary fuel, and therefore one of the most valuable commodities, of the era — as well as deprivation and determination. At its centre looms the bitter rivalry between the Essex’s aristocratic but inexperienced captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), and its veteran first mate, the intrepid Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth).

Driven by avarice, and by the mutual desire to be rid of each other, Pollard and Chase recklessly carry their vessel off to the remote, mid-Pacific feeding grounds where the relentlessly hunted whales, already absent from more accessible areas, are still to be found, so it’s rumoured, in large numbers. There the ship meets its disastrous destiny as the result of an uncanny encounter with a leviathan of vast proportions and unusual ferocity.

While the picture falls short of its own sublime ambitions, it does reach the level of thoughtful, generally absorbing entertainment. And the imagery is frequently striking, as when a harpooned whale showers his hunters in a rainfall of the blood forcefully expelled from his blowhole. Other scenes evoke everything from a particularly good episode of the 1960s gothic soap opera “Dark Shadows” to an eerie maritime painting.

Howard and Leavitt maintain a light touch as the script deals incidentally with such religious themes as the power of prayer and the benefits of (non-sacramental) confession. Equal delicacy is observed in treating other heavyweight topics, especially a newborn sense of environmentalism voiced through a debate about man’s true status within — and proper stance toward — the natural world.

Although it’s no match for the masterful narrative with which it shares its factual source material, In the Heart of the Sea does represent accomplished moviemaking of a high order.

The film contains much stylized seafaring violence with brief gore, mature themes, including cannibalism and suicide, a fleeting bawdy image, about a half-dozen uses of profanity as well as a single crude and several crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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