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Fantastic Fest Review: Bronson

By  · Published on October 6th, 2009

When I’ve shared the trailer for Bronson with friends, I repeatedly noticed an initial confusion followed by curious interest. The confusion always results from the question, “Why would there be a biopic called Bronson not about the most famous Bronson?” (that’d be Charles), a question quickly answered as the eponymous protagonist of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson states that he adopted the infamous action film star’s moniker to create his own tough-guy persona from scratch. This title-to-film confusion is indicative of the larger unconventional, surprising, and expectation-defying nature of Bronson as a biopic. Bronson is a truly unique and ambitious, occasionally impenetrable piece of filmmaking carefully calculated in its execution and matched by Tom Hardy’s magnificent, career-defining lead performance.

Bronson is the story of Michael Gordon Petersen, aka Charlie Bronson, one of England’s most notorious prisoners. The film is in no way your run-of-the-mill biopic, forgoing the typical linear inciting-childhood-incident-to-fulfilling-legacy-in-adulthood that many a mainstream biopic subscribes to. Even though the character in question is far from notorious (at least in American culture), so skipping over certain life incidents would not be seen as disappointing, the filmmakers smartly concede from the outset that no entire life can be successfully covered within the span of a normal film’s running time, so they instead set their ambitions on a handful of detailed episodes in Bronson’s ‘career’. Even when Petersen’s childhood and youth are covered in the film, it is dealt and done with so briskly in a way that seems to spit in the face of convention, using nothing in the story of his younger years to explain his adult behavior and almost painting it as completely irrelevant, or as arbitrary and meaningless as the crimes that get him into prison time and again. Petersen/Bronson is framed as always having been one who challenged authority, but none of this is rooted in simplistic demons or insecurities. He’s simply a force of nature for the very sake of it, and this comes off as far more fascinating than the alternative.

Bonson’s narrative is punctuated with snippets of the titular character reciting the details of his life story as a one man-play in an elegant opera house. This peculiar approach to narration starts off as a direct character address until the audience is revealed, and it becomes apparent from the beginning that these scenes have no direct relationship to the rest of the film. There is no point in Bronson’s life where he actually does this; rather this is a device for the film’s unique method of storytelling.

To me these scenes are indicative of what Bronson essentially is and what it does and doesn’t do. These scenes introduce the idea of performance, which I interpreted as the film’s thematic core. Throughout his life, Petersen/Bronson seeks notoriety, and surprisingly finds prison to be a place where he feels he can make a name for himself, where he can (ironically enough) live to his full potential, a place where he aims to gain a reputation as the most dangerous prisoner in England. His crimes and abuse of the guards and fellow inmates of the prisons and institutions he is relegated to are never posed as hateful or truly dangerous. There is never a sense that he has anything less than complete control over the situation. His motivation is not money, power, bloodlust, or any of the other trappings films typically instill upon such characters. He simply causes chaos for others for his own amusement. It gives him worth. So in a sense, Bronson never really is England’s most dangerous prisoner, but a man posing to be, a man who wants people to think this is what he is. This is why his adoption of the name of a famous actor is essential to his personality (even before he chooses this name, there is an overt sense throughout that he is actively molding a vision of himself). Like a movie star, he embodies on the surface a persona rather than a personality. He is constantly acting, with fellow prison guards and prisoners as his always-attentive audience. The framing of the narrative with Bronson’s direct address, then, establishes from the beginning this performativity essential to understanding his nature.

Bronson seems to exist entirely within the head of this lead character. The film represents a case of the unreliable narrator as he chronicles his own life through his own words, occupying every scene and nearly every frame. We never see Bronson from the perspective of others or from any outside source, so there’s no way to say whether or not he achieves the reputation he thinks he has earned (there’s no evidence of fear from prison guards, neither fear nor respect from fellow prisoners, and the closest title he gets is “the most expensive prisoner in England” in a newspaper). So the film’s dense formal style, including its direct address, goes hand-in-hand with this subjective narrative approach. There is evidence, especially in his affair with a woman he thinks he loves, that Bronson doesn’t really embody the confidence he sees in himself, but all that’s important here is how Bronson sees Bronson as a larger-than-life figure to be reckoned with.

This filmed has been called “Kubrickian” by others, mostly by comparison to A Clockwork Orange; and like that film, Bronson stages much of its imagery as if it were a photograph rather than a moving image, allowing characters the time to stand still comfortably within their surroundings. The few episodes that comprise Bronson as a whole are lengthy, stagey slow burns, often resulting in some beautiful imagery. Unlike the hurried pace and attempted real-time naturalism of his Pusher trilogy, Refn here allows his images to breathe and imbues a dense, thoroughly stylistic filmmaking personality into every moment of the film. Bronson also, like Kubrick, contains some of the most iconic and artful (and wide-ranging) employments of classical and popular film music to grace the screen in quite some time, particularly its climactic appropriation of “Viens Malika” from Léo Delibes’s Lakmé and its use The Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin” as a motif (for some reason British films can capture the 80s like no others). This is not to say the film in any way copies Kubrick, rather it seems more like a point of departure. Bronson is a rare film where stye matches substance. However, Refn’s style is sometimes overbearing and occasionally brings the film to a halt, and I occasionally wished he would lay off the formal staginess and let the film flow a bit more naturally. Additionally, the film felt like it should’ve picked up the pace time and again, not because it ever feels slow or boring, but because I wish I could have seen more of this fascinating character. In many ways Bronson left me unsatiated.

This film, of course, wouldn’t work without a commanding lead performance, and Tom Hardy knocks it out of the park with an intricate, detailed, fully dimensional performance that sustains even the film’s weaker moments (appropriate for a character that is always ‘performing’). It’s a true character embodiment and one of the standout performances of the year. Hardy thankfully avoids the distracting business of quirky mannerisms that many actors would ham up with a character as eccentric and enigmatic as this. Hardy avoids the easy route, using Bronson’s moments of quiet restraint to inform the character just as thoroughly as his outbursts, and having a sense of humor all the while.

The Upside: Ambitious, experimental bravura filmmaking in an unconventional story of a fascinating character, grounded with a magnetic lead performance.

The Downside: The movie occasionally gets suffocated by a style that doesn’t always do it justice.

On the Side: Bronson has been accused of taking many a creative liberty, fudging a lot of facts of the real man’s life. To me, since the movie is about a performance, seems to take place within the character’s subjectivity, and does not aim to tell a true-life story, these liberties are justifiable.