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‘The Krays’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 09, 1990

"I can see things in your eyes," the timorous British girl tells her fiance, about halfway through "The Krays."

"What things?" asks the natty young man.

"Monsters," she replies.

She's right on the money. This is Reginald Kray who, with his deadlier twin brother Ronald, has been running a vicious extortion ring in '60s London. They own several nightclubs, a fleet of Rolls Royces, an arsenal of deadly weapons, and they've come a long way since their devoted mother affectionately referred to them as her "little monsters."

Don't read this movie wrong. Director Peter Medak's retelling of the real-life Kray brother saga isn't just another gangster picture. Culled from the dark side of -- among many things -- myths, fairy tales, Greek tragedy, the war between the sexes, family loyalty, the lot of women and the psychic connection between twins, "The Krays" is a foreboding, riveting metaphor about human monsters and the monstrosities of criminal life. It's one of the most original films of the year.

Medak and screenwriter Philip Ridley set up this complex Grimm's fable memorably. Mother Violet Kray (Billie Whitelaw) is recounting a dream in which she's a swan from whose eggs two beautiful babies have hatched. But are these babies angels or demons? By the time Violet's dream is ironically reprised at the end of the movie, you find out.

The brothers (played by four pairs of real brothers, including adults Gary and Martin Kemp) are born in London's East End in the 1930s, a world in which times are hard, men are in power and the women are bitter. Under Violet's maternally tenacious wing, Ronald and Reginald discover not only the inner, psychic world between them, but the outer one just waiting to be exploited.

As twins, they dream the same dreams, read each other's thoughts and often speak at the same time. As gangsters-to-be, they spitefully clog the nostrils of their sleeping father (Alfred Lynch), push schoolboys out of their path and develop an eerie fascination for crocodiles. When, in a powerfully visceral scene, they beat each other bloody in a fairground boxing ring, their horrified mother pushes herself between them.

"You fight them up there," she tells them. "But you don't fight each other."

This call to blood unity over everything becomes a driving force in the brothers' lives. It propels them through a brutal escalation of underworld excess. After taking over the territory of an Italian petty mobster (by spearing his hand with a saber), the brothers build an empire with terrifying velocity; in a matter of screen moments, they have accrued an empire of clubs, cars and Savile Row suits.

But it isn't long before the twins' relationship founders: Reginald falls for a demure little woman named Frances (Kate Hardie), while Ronnie strikes up a less-than-tender relationship with one of his henchmen. One night, at one of the Kray nightclubs, Ronald, psychotically jealous of his brother for flirting with Frances, threatens to cut a smile into a gang member's face -- and does so.

The body count rises when older criminals (including Tom Bell and Steven Berkoff) challenge the Krays' blustery authority, and the ensuing violence takes its toll not only on the brothers, but Frances and Violet -- who has valiantly attempted to turn a blind eye to everything.

Medak (who did "The Ruling Class") and Ridley have created a work by turns macabre, poignant and amusing; and with the grating exception of actress Hardie (who ought to be thrown to the crocodiles), all the performances here are highly assured. The Kemp brothers (of pop's Spandau Ballet fame) are alarmingly effective and, as Cain to the Abel, Gary Kemp is particularly harrowing.

Den mother Billie Whitelaw, however, one of the best actresses working today, rules the thespian roost. When she asserts, with a steely world-weariness, that "Housework is a lethal business," the statement hangs over you like an existential cloud of wisdom; and when she recounts her exhilarating swan dream, her dynamic delivery introduces and concludes "The Krays" with unforgettably poignant dimension.

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