“Based on a true story.” This is the opening caveat of the buzzworthy UK film Bronson, a flippant and often frustrating look into the life of Britain’s self-proclaimed “most violent prisoner.” As is the case with any biopic, the story of Michael Peterson’s transition from his adolescent self to his starstruck alter ego “Charlie Bronson” is laden with embellishments and outright fabrications that serve to make the film gel into a palatable whole.
The film begins with a black background featuring central character in the foreground, under what appears to be an interrogation light. In this opening sequence, we discover the roots of his discontent: coming of age in early 1970s England with a chip on his shoulder, young Peterson has a propensity for violence. He particularly likes fighting, and particularly dislikes authority. Through a series of cutaways, we see him fight school mates as well as various others. He takes a menial job in a meat store, where he meets his first love. They move in together and have a child – this is the moment at which Peterson has his first run-in with the law. In an overly stylistic fashion, we see him saw off a shotgun, rob a post office and, of course, get caught and imprisoned. From that point on, we learn how a man who has never killed anyone can end up in prison for more than 30 years. Shuffled from institution to institution, he spends the majority of these years in solitary confinement.
In his opening monologue, Peterson (now more comfortable as Bronson) explains with very little exposition that he has decided to take on his “Fighting Name” – Charlie Bronson, and he is referred to as such for the remainder of the film. We see him engaged in various confrontations behind bars, most of the time completely unprovoked. These scenes are interspersed with his appearances in white-face clown makeup, on a stage, addressing an auditorium full of spectators. It is in these scenes that we find the disconnect between Michael Peterson and what he perceives to be an out-and-out celebrity in the persona of Charlie Bronson.
Overall, Bronson works as a sympathetic character, a victim of his own time and society. A severe lack of character development, however, leaves viewers torn as to exactly why we should care about this tortured, misunderstood soul. The people who enter and exit his life are merely pawns or targets to further his own misanthropic agenda.
British mainstay Tom Hardy plays the title character with voracity and a disturbing amount of vigor. He reportedly gained 100 pounds of muscle in order to emulate Bronson’s hulking frame, and he leaps into the role unabashedly. Great acting, however, cannot make up for average writing. It remains a mystery as to why the writers chose to fabricate a scenario in which Bronson is briefly released from prison and falls in love with a woman. These events never took place in the life of the “real” Bronson, and really serve no purpose.
For all its flaws, however, Bronson remains a strong contender for the title of “cult classic.”
What did you think about Bronson? Did you think there were flaws also?