In 1974, a hot-headed 19 year old named Michael Peterson decided he wanted to make a name for himself and so, with a homemade sawn-off shotgun and a head full of dreams he attempted to rob a post office. Swiftly apprehended and originally sentenced to 7 years in jail, Peterson has subsequently been behind bars for 34 years, 30 of which have been spent in solitary confinement. During that time, Michael Petersen, the boy, faded away and 'Charles Bronson,' his superstar alter ego, took centre stage.
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: 'My name is Charles Bronson and all my life I’ve wanted to be famous."
So begins 90-odd minutes of rose-coloured recollections from Britain’s most infamous prisoner, the criminally insane Charles Bronson.
Director Nicholas Winding Refn delivers a brilliant blow to the conventions of the biopic; his Bronson offers no sympathetic back-story to explain why young Michael Peterson lost his way and found infamy as Britain’s most violent prisoner. The overarching message of the piece seems to be: He is what he is, so stick it up your jacksy, and we the audience can do little else but take his gravel-voiced self-aggrandising with a grain of salt.
Like a vaudevillian charlatan, Bronson's clown-faced alter ego delivers his abridged biography to the enraptured music hall audience of his mind; he mesmerises them with his outlandish exaggerations, complete with snare drum and cymbals.
Selected flashbacks reveal a propensity for violence from his earliest school days, and his first experience of porridge takes place after a botched armed robbery as a newlywed. A seven-year term is extended progressively as Peterson punches his way through a virtual conga-line of Her Majesty’s employees in his bid to escape from the clink.
On one of his brief stints on the outside, a boxing promoter encourages him to adopt a name with more 'star quality’ so he settles on that of the Mongolian/American tough guy immortalised in Death Wish, after his first choice – Charlton Heston – is summarily dismissed..
When conventional incarceration has no impact, Charles Bronson is declared criminally insane and carted off to the funny farm. In scenes reminiscent of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Bronson is medicated to the eye-teeth and reduced to a red-faced salivating, regurgitating mess. Doping appears to do the trick, as a half-hearted attempt at escape (set to the thundering synth-pop of Pet Shop Boys’ It’s a Sin) is overcome with some gentle persuasion.
Tom Hardy is a full-bodied assault on the senses in his turn as the eponymous antihero. His Charlie Bronson embodies stylised anarchy of a fashion not seen since Malcolm McDowell donned a bowler hat and boiler suit in A Clockwork Orange, or since Paul Newman tipped parking meters as an aimless drifter-turned-prisoner in Cool Hand Luke.
Bronson is outrageously un-PC and morbidly funny in its depiction of an overcrowded prison system ill-equipped to deal with a menacing presence such as Bronson’s (including earnest but aborted attempts to soothe the savage beast through art therapy).
Enduring the egotistical ramblings of a psychopath may not sound like a particularly entertaining prospect, but Bronson delivers on all fronts.