Better than you might think. THE KRAYS begins after identical twins Ronald and Reginald Kray (Gary and Martin Kemp) are born in a working-class slum in London's East End. They are raised amidst the hardship and deprivation of WWII, in a world of women and children--the men being either
in the army or draft dodgers like the twins' own father. Brought up by their strong-willed mother, Violet (Billie Whitelaw), and her equally commanding mother and sisters, the boys grow up fiercely devoted to each other and to the women who raised them, admiring strength and cunning and
contemptuous of weakness and of the law. Bullies as children, the Krays turn into criminals hardened by stints in prison and the army. Vicious, fearless, and highly conscious of the figure they cut as twins, they begin to build an illegal empire based on gambling and protection rackets. But as
their businesses expand, the twins begin to grow apart. Ron, who's homosexual, begins to show signs of mental instability, is prone to fits of irrational violence, and is also determined to dominate his brother. Reg tries to escape Ron's influence by getting married, but his high-strung bride
can't take the strain of living as a gangster's wife and commits suicide. After her death, the twins are closer than ever; however, Ron's arrogant savagery eventually brings them down.
Although the real-life Krays--called the "Kings of Crime" during their heyday in the London underworld in the 60s--are genuine celebrities in the UK (where they are still serving time), they're all but unknown elsewhere. THE KRAYS isn't compelling enough to explain the brothers' enduring notoriety
to outsiders. The key to their appeal isn't that they were criminal masterminds (they weren't, not by any stretch of the imagination), but that they were performers, flash lower-class icons who mixed with celebrities and aristocrats, carefully cultivating their own myth. Twins, they dressed
identically, travelled in tandem, and finished each other's thoughts. One homosexual and one heterosexual, one mad and one controlled, both simultaneously brutal and stylish, the Krays were bound by an intricate web of loyalty and love. You couldn't make them up without being charged with lurid
On the other hand, no one could accuse screenwriter Philip Ridley or director Peter Medak of exploiting the story. They've stuck close to the facts of the Krays's lives, but rendered the inherently bizarre material almost lifeless. In concentrating on locating the Krays in a socioeconomic and
historical context, Ridley's script winds up being top-heavy with scenes of the twins as children, when they weren't doing anything very interesting. Medak (A DAY IN THE DEATH OF JOE EGG, THE RULING CLASS) vacillates in this film between theatrical stylization and cheerless realism, but the styles
don't mesh and neither has any real punch. Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's overwrought PERFORMANCE, which isn't overtly about the Krays at all, captures better the studied decadence of their short, brutal turn in the limelight.
THE KRAYS' one unequivocal asset is the Kemps--brothers, former child actors, and members of the Spandau Ballet--who are extraordinary as the twins. Many rock singers have tried to make the transition to acting, few of them triumphantly. Even such superstars as Mick Jagger (who starred in
PERFORMANCE), David Bowie and Madonna have achieved only limited success on the screen. But the Kemps use what they've learned about stage presence and channel it into characterizations. They've got the charismatic performers in the Krays down pat, and they play off one another with authoritative
ease. (Even the fact that they aren't twins works for them, since, as adults, Ron and Reg looked significantly different.) The Kemps make THE KRAYS worth watching. And they're supported by a first-rate cast of female monsters and victims, and some compelling seedy bits by strong character
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