"The Krays," Peter Medak's new film about the notorious identical twin gangsters who commanded London's East End club scene during the '60s, begins with a stroke of hallucinatory creepiness. While Violet Kray is giving birth to her darling boys, she dreams of a swan flying in grainy slow motion toward a bright light.
Then comes the blood.
Conceptually, "The Krays" strikes out for virgin territory. It's sort of a first -- an Oedipal gangster film -- and this opening image sets the stage for everything that follows. The fruits of this lyrically erotic natal vision are Ronald and Reginald Kray, who, according to the filmmakers' updated mythology, are meant to be seen as blighted, working-class versions of Castor and Pollux. Born only minutes apart, the boys have an eerie psychic connection. As tykes in grammar school, they finish each other's sentences as if they were speaking out of a single consciousness. As they grow older, they bully the other children in the schoolyard and nurture a fascination for crocodiles and Jack the Ripper. Ostensibly this fondness grows out of their identification with the predators of the world, but like most of what happens in this suggestive, inchoate and sometimes alluring film, the connections are intentionally or unintentionally left to our imaginations.
The film's earlier scenes, in which we're given the details of the boys' matriarchal upbringing, are the most expressive. At first their fierce circle of overprotective neighbor ladies and aunts seems charmed, a safe haven in a hostile us-against-them world. At its dead center is the irrepressible Violet (Billie Whitelaw), who coddles her precious twins at the expense of her older boy (Roger Monk) and her draft-dodging husband (Alfred Lynch). But while Medak and screenwriter Philip Ridley present Reg and Ron as the princely objects of these feminine lavishments, they also show how the cornerstone of this henhouse camaraderie is a castrating hatred of men. Violet is a Medea in apron strings, killing her boys with kindness, and their violence is a kind of rebellion against her tyrannical mothering.
Too much of the movie, though, is left in rough sketch, unpainted. The scenes in which the twins climb into their roles as dapper celebrity monsters have a tantalizing psychological sting. Dressed in their swank Savile Row suits and custom shirts, these mirror-image dandies are the toast of swinging London. Still, with all their respectability and wealth, the Krays never venture far from home, never reject their status as mama's boys. The contrast between the coldblooded violence of the twins' gangland takeovers and the tea-cozy domesticity of their mother's home is, at times, hilarious. It's a little like what the war councils in "The Godfather" might have looked like if Hazel the maid had burst in with a tray of cookies.
Still, though something's going on here, we don't know what it is -- at least not exactly. It's suggested that Ron's homosexuality has some deep significance and that his jealousy over Reg's marriage is at least partial explanation for his viciousness. But though Ron seems to genuinely enjoy his violent eruptions, the filmmakers can't quite bring themselves to make a direct connection between this and his sexuality, and so the implication just hangs there like an undropped shoe.
Also, the filmmakers want the Krays to be more emblematic than they actually are. They want the film to have a social dimension, to comment on issues of class and privilege, but these cultural metaphors are stillborn. The Krays lack resonance as class figures specifically because they are such anomalies.
Strangely enough, "The Krays" is most enticing when the psychological atmosphere is thick with unresolved sexual suggestiveness. As Ron and Reg, Gary and Martin Kemp, who are founding members of Spandau Ballet, convey an air of evil dissipation; they're sleepy killers. In some peculiar way their violence seems to represent a form of sibling sex; they have each other through killing. Unfortunately, Medak and his collaborators can't make anything out of these vague hints and notions. As the movie progresses, it becomes less interesting. There are some striking performances from the supporting cast, particularly Steven Berkoff's rabid portrayal of a rival gang lord. The rest of the film, in fact, could have benefited from a little of his mad-dog ferocity. As heroes, the Krays are more shadow than substance; they're stuck in metaphor.
The Krays, at area theaters, is rated R and contains violence and adult material.