Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn tells the story of the life and crimes of “the most dangerous prisoner in Britain” in Bronson.

Born Michael Peterson to a respectable 1950s Luton family, our subject was a school bully and petty criminal who had made a name for himself as a bare-knuckle boxer, changing his name to Charles Bronson, after the tough-guy actor, at his promoter’s suggestion. Then, in 1974, looking to find enough money to buy an engagement ring, Bronson robbed a post office. He got away with a little over £26 and the police arrested him within the hour. Since then, Bronson has spent almost 34 years in prison, 30 of them in solitary confinement, despite never having murdered anyone or committed a serious crime.

Refn, still best known for his trilogy of hard-boiled Pusher films, takes the bare bones of Bronson’s story to construct a visionary, highly-stylised biopic in concert with his lead actor, Tom Hardy. Hardy, who has a small part in Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla last year, has piled on muscle, shaved his head and cultivated a twirling Victorian moustache to completely inhabit his character. It is an extraordinary performance, part comic, part tragic, which focuses on the man’s self-confessed hunger for fame, any kind of fame, eventually settling on being the most notorious man in the prison system.

Brock Norman Brock’s script unfolds primarily in flashback, bringing us through the significant events of Bronson’s life on the outside before focusing on his need for violence and, once incarcerated, his campaign of kidnapping and assault against other prisoners and staff. Later, after time spent in a mental institution, Bronson starts his life in solitary confinement, his only respite being a weekly art class. His art teacher (who is eventually, inevitably held hostage) sees promise in his work and encourages him to express himself. Bronson sees physical violence as his medium, his fists as his brushes, his life inside as a vast, endless performance.

Cinematographer Larry Smith worked on The Shining and photographed Eyes Wide Shut and the influence of Kubrick, particularly A Clockwork Orange, is apparent in Refn’s long, slow moving takes, use of music and air of artificially elevated theatre. Regardless of his inspirations, the director real focus in on his lead actor and Hardy gives an incredibly powerful and physical performance that he sustains throughout every scene of the film, often addressing the camera directly in a peculiar combination of obnoxious charm and terrifying wrath. Refn’s recurring device, our anti-hero on stage in a cathedral-like theatre alone in front of an appreciative audience, becomes wearing after a while, despite Hardy filling the space with explosive bursts of manic, dangerous energy. Later, the director creates animations from the real Bronson’s child-like drawings and employs them to change the tone when, as it regularly does, events turn dark and mean.

Consistently challenging and ocassionally transcendent, Bronson is a film that stands alongside Andrew Dominik’s Chopper as a modern classic of the prison genre.

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