Tom Hardy is fast becoming one of Britain’s most versatile young actors, switching between roles as charmers (Handsome Bob in RocknRolla) and killers and psychopaths with seeming ease.
As Britain’s most notorious violent prisoner, Charles Bronson, he is simply awesome; and his transformation from slim actor to muscle-packed, shaven-headed menace is astonishing.
In 1974, at the age of 19 Michael Peterson (as he was then known) was sentenced to seven years in prison for armed robbery. But since then, after some brief spells of freedom, he has spent his life behind bars because of his inability to control his violent streak.
Does Charlie provoke violence, or does violence follow him around? It’s a question that the film never answers (although it shows his violence in graphic detail, so those who are squeamish may find some scenes disturbing). Even when Charlie takes up art and is given more freedom to mix with other prisoners, something once again sparks his inner demons into life and he ends up holding the art teacher hostage – a misdemeanour deemed so serious he is now held in solitary confinement.
However, rather than just portray Bronson as some wild-eyed, raving mad man, Hardy brings his undoubted intelligence to the fore, producing a complex, layered performance that certainly doesn’t explain away the man’s actions, but certainly gives you pause for thought.
This performance is so central to the film (and so outstanding) it almost makes up for the structure of the movie – where we often see Charlie as a vaudeville or music hall artiste on stage, playing to his audience. This doesn’t really add anything to the story and a straightforward telling of what Bronson has done and had done to him may have served the film better.