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All My Life I Wanted To Be Famous
Member Name: plipplop
Advantages: Amazing performance from Tom Hardy, quirky and unpredictable style, good special features
Disadvantages: Lack of structure will not appeal to all
Charles Bronson (born Michael Peterson) is the UK's most infamous and violent prisoner. Imprisoned in 1974 for armed robbery, he has gone on to spend 36 years behind bars, save for a short period of 69 days in 1988, when he was released, only to re-offend in another robbery.
Bronson is a biopic of the man's life, primarily from the early 1970s through the the 1980s, depicting some of the key events in that period, including his time spent as a bare knuckle fighter and several notable (and notorious) events that took place behind bars. Told as a mixture of first person narrative, third person reconstruction and fantasy drama, the film attempts to take a profound look at the man behind the myth.
It's difficult to know where to start with a film like Bronson. Narratively, it's almost one of the least interesting films available. Ostensibly the tale of someone who is clearly a bit bonkers, it's amazing how an 89-minute film can be crafted from 'not an awful lot going on really'. In many directors' hands, it would almost certainly have been a flop. But a combination of artful, imaginative direction, skilful and innovative storytelling and one of the most astounding performances you'll ever see ensure that Bronson is actually at times a rather remarkable film.
The director (who also directed the Pusher trilogy and the dreadful Valhalla Rising) has crafted a film filled with different ways of telling a story. There are segments of the real world, normally narrated by the lead character as he explains key events such as his childhood. Then there is the fantasy world, a theatre stage complete with a devoted audience, hanging on Bronson's every word as he performs and narrates his way creatively through various incidents and events. It's very artfully done. An explosive combination of music (both classical and contemporary) accompanies much of the action, largely because dialogue simply wouldn't serve any purpose. Much of it is rather surreal. It's difficult to say whether it's being played for laughs or just to be quirky, but amidst the blood and the violence, there's a strange, almost childish vein of humour, no more so than when Bronson finds his more artistic self later on in the film and a montage of strange (and slightly disturbing) animations accompany his stroll across the prison compound.
It's often a deeply unrewarding experience. In nearly ninety minutes of running time, it's astounding just how little we actually learn about the man. We discover that he came from respectable roots and had a reasonably normal childhood, but then as he moved into adulthood he just seemed to go bonkers. It was as though the world was too calm and simple for him. He needed conflict and violence everywhere he went and it was no surprise that before long it all caught up with him. But the frustrating thing about the whole film is that the audience will never really understand why. Here is a man who has spent the best part of thirty-five years in prison (most of that in solitary confinement) for no reason other than he wants to be famous. Arguably the film leaves more questions than answers and, as biopics go, really isn't very rewarding at all. Certain factual elements of Bronson's life are retained here (his short-lived first marriage, his role in prison riots, his habit of taking people hostage) but all the way through and after you just find yourself scratching your head and asking yourself why.
What helps is that the director and writers manage to put the whole thing together with an over-riding sense of good humour. That's not to say that Bronson is immediately comical, but they make it very difficult not to like him. His refusal to observe authority and to conform in any way is actually vaguely refreshing and when you remember that the only reason that his sentence keeps being extended is because of what he has done 'inside' the prison, you don't really get the feeling that he's a bad person. It would have been easy to make a dark, very psychological drama here, but somehow Nicola Winding Refn has actually created something of a hero. This, of course, closely emulates Bronson's real life status, where he never finds himself short of admirers, despite the fact that he spends most of his time locked up in a cage.
This isn't, however, a film for traditionalists. This isn't a film to be watched if you're looking forward to a good old-fashioned yarn with such luxuries as a start, middle and end. It's actually a rather random exercise and the lack of any cohesive structure won't appeal to everyone. Whilst the chronology is accurate and consistent, the style of filmmaking hops about slightly clumsily, notably towards the end, where earlier styles and flourishes are dispensed with for no apparent reason. The rather chaotic, almost anarchistic feel to the film has inevitably drawn comparisons to Stanley Kubrick's 'A Clockwork Orange' but these are two very different beasts. Orange was chaotic but purposeful whereas Bronson seems to thrive on the pointlessness of the lead character's life, wasted behind bars after countless unnecessary altercations with the authorities.
The director states clearly that he had no social or political motivation in making this film. His view was that the original script 'wasn't very good' and he needed to understand what he could do with the project. In some ways, Bronson *might* have been a stronger movie had the director and writers had a clearer motivation for making it. The good news is, therefore, that their leading man had a very strong motivation for making this film - and that's the main reason it's still quite remarkable.
British actor Tom Hardy has seen an increasing profile in a number of recent movies including RockNRolla and the TV adaptation of Martina Cole's The Take, but it will always be Bronson that is seen as the film that propelled him into the A list. His portrayal of Charlie Bronson is astounding. Indeed, the DVD cover displays a quote from Jonathan Ross that he is 'mesmerising' and I can't think of a more appropriate description. The relatively slim actor piled on three stone in the space of five weeks for the role, training intensively to develop a brawler's build, and his transformation is up there with Christian Bale's emaciation in The Machinist in terms of being astounding.
But it's not just the amazing physical transformation that commands attention (nor even the fact that he continually goes full frontal naked.) It's simply the fact that he develops the absolute presence of the man himself. On the DVD, there's an audio introduction recorded with the real Charlie Bronson and when you compare this to Hardy's dialogue in the film, it's superbly accurate. Indeed, Bronson's family and friends (consulted as part of the filmmaking process) were said to be delighted with the results and the accuracy of Hardy's performance. Hardy himself has admitted to a slightly unhealthy interest in Bronson's life but that translates enormously well onto the big screen, where his portrayal is an obvious labour of life. The depth and range of Hardy's performance is staggering - comical, heart-wrenching, humorous, terrifying - he seems to cover every facet of the mysterious man's personality and whilst there is seldom that much actually going on, his performance alone is enough to keep you watching.
With such a powerhouse central performance, it's unsurprising that pretty much everybody else is eclipsed but there are some great cameos. In Matt King's case, it's a slight shame there isn't more room to shine, but his support role as Bronson's creepy prison friend Paul is spot on. He's blessed with a couple of killer one-liners, and a camp-yet-sinister voice that'll make your flesh crawl. Hugh Ross gives him a run for his money in the 'creepy' stakes as Bronson's crooked Uncle Jack and James lance is characteristically slimy as Phil the art teacher. It's interesting that in such a masculine film, all the men around Bronson are actually quite camp. But most bizarrely of all, there's a brief cameo from Amanda (Silent Witness) Burton as Bronson's mum, even though you'll need your wits about you to spot it.
The film makes the transition onto DVD reasonably well, although some may mistake some of the effects as attributable to bad transfer, rather than being deliberate. The gritty picture quality lends the film a deliberate pseudo-documentary style, that also ages the picture appropriately for its setting and the contrast between the prison scenes and the sharper, stage-set scenes work very well here. The disc comes with two audio set-ups - Dolby surround 5.1 and stereo 2.0. The latter works well in terms of sheer power, but the surround sound gives the film a more inclusive feel, particularly when the 80s soundtrack is playing (the Pet Shops Boys' classic It's A Sin sounds noticeably different on surround, for example). That aside, the surround sound is used to a particularly great extent, except perhaps (again) during the stage-set scenes, where you get a better feeling of being within the audience.
Audio commentary - this comprises an interview with the director, which gives it a different format to the sort of thing you'd normally find in a commentary. It's quite intense; there aren't many laughs here, but it's far more insightful and has a much broader scope than your average DVD commentary.
Making Of - the making of documentary could make a reasonable substitute for the commentary for those with less interest or less time to spend ploughing through. Again, it's relatively serious, but nicely segmented into different chapters and offers some creative insights. It's not the usual kind of promotional tool either, so it's not stuffed with sycophantic black slapping (although there is some praise going on).
Audio Introduction from Charles Bronson - at around fifteen minutes, this is probably too long for the casual viewer/listener, but is quite a remarkable feature, given that you can actually listen to the person about whom the film is made. It also enables you to marvel at how closely Tom Hardy was able to mimic the real Bronson's voice, although some of it is barely decipherable.
Tom Hardy - Building The Body - a short feature showing Hardy and his personal trainer talking about how he bulked up for the role. It's not massively insightful but it's interesting enough and worth watching in its own right simply to ogle Tom Hardy's body (sorry).
TV Spots/Teaser Trailer - three short teasers/trailers that were used on TV - alongside the other extras, these seem utterly pointless. There's also a trailer for the director's next film, Valhalla Rising (which was yet to be released when this was issued on DVD. Let me save you some time with that one - don't bother. It's awful.)
Bronson is a bit of a mixed bag but there's an awful lot to admire here. The director's quirky visual style means that there is seldom a dull moment and he's definitely to be admired for not making a typical 'prison' film. The lack of manageable structure will make this a turn off to some, but the amazing central performance alone is probably enough to make this an essential selection, even if you only need to watch it once.
Summary: An astounding performance makes this unmissable