Tom Hardy: 6 essential performances

We salute the Britpack A-lister’s greatest roles to date, from unlucky spy to Welsh foreman.

15 September 2015

By Lou Thomas

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Born in Hammersmith and raised in East Sheen, Tom Hardy has always searched far and wide for a chewy acting challenge, especially if it involves thick-skulled brutality or a new accent. While not exclusively a man of violence on screen, most of the notable parts the Londoner has taken on have involved extensive danger and destruction.

His first major film role came in Star Trek Nemesis (2002), in which he’s a camp delight as Captain Picard’s creepy doppelganger Shinzon. But it was in Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending action masterpiece Inception (2010) that Hardy got his big break. As Eames, Hardy is a master forger and suave meta man-who-can, a creative and diligent thinker who moves through dreams fooling marks, firing guns and detonating explosives with the resolve of a man who won’t – can’t – lose. Hardy and lead Leonardo DiCaprio also teamed up for The Revenant (2015), albeit as antagonists.

In Warrior (2011), Hardy’s ex-marine mixed martial arts fighter is a merciless pugilist and spars just as effectively verbally with recovering alcoholic father Nick Nolte as he does in the ring. His heartbreaking and hilarious portrayal of gay gangster Handsome Bob in RocknRolla (2008) is similarly refreshing. Hardy impresses among a strong ensemble cast, even if Guy Ritchie’s fourth London crime feature is sporadically cartoonish.

In The Dark Knight Rises (2012), again working for Nolan, he voiced uber-villain Bane with a stagey ruthlessness that divided audiences (inspired by the voices of Richard Burton and bare-knuckle fighter Bartley Gorman). While in Lawless (2011), the country twang of indestructible Virginia bootlegger Forrest Bondurant is augmented by a series of grunts and mumbles of the kind one can imagine being made by a man who makes moonshine. Meanwhile, in Child 44 (2014), Hardy attempted a Russian accent he claimed was based on Sesame Street character The Count and was one of the few involved in the film to escape widespread critical condemnation.

Stuart: A Life Backwards (2007)

Director: David Attwood

Stuart: A Life Backwards (2007)

Near the start of the exceptional one-off BBC TV drama Stuart: A Life Backwards, troubled Cambridge man Stuart Clive Shorter is described by his friend Alexander Masters as a heroin addict and street raconteur. Alexander decides to write Stuart’s story and, as the pair bond over a campaign to release two unfairly jailed social workers, Stuart’s sad but occasionally hilarious life unflinchingly unfolds. Aside from Stuart’s mental health issues and homelessness, horrifying bouts of abuse are recounted in a true, sad story. Benedict Cumberbatch is on reliably proper, educated form as Alexander but Hardy’s incredible depiction of Stuart deserved even more than the BAFTA nomination it garnered. Viewers may wonder if Hardy’s own successful battle with alcohol and crack addiction informed his part. His display is a nuanced tour de force, whether he’s standing slightly too close to others, depicting Stuart’s muscular dystrophy with crumpled, angled body movement or stabbing himself while naked in a flat he has set on fire.

Bronson (2008)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Bronson (2008)

Nicolas Winding Refn’s film contains a thunderous performance from Hardy, who is rarely off the screen as one of the most famous and most violent prisoners in Britain. Bronson (born to a respectable family as Michael Gordon Peterson before he changed his name to that of the Death Wish actor Charles) has a lengthy record of convictions for crimes including armed robbery, wounding with intent and grievous bodily harm. Inside prison he swiftly became known for assaulting fellow prisoners and guards and even conducting eyebrow-raising one-man rooftop protests. Bronson, who now goes by the name Charles Salvador, was evidently pleased by Hardy’s portrayal – its ferocity is undeniable. Again, Hardy is happy to engage in full-frontal nudity, although this time it’s usually before greasing himself up, screaming obscenities and fighting off groups of prison guards.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (2011)

In a film full of terrific performances from some of Britain’s finest screen actors (Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Kathy Burke, Stephen Graham and Benedict Cumberbatch again), Hardy plays MI6 field agent Ricki Tarr, a man suspected of defecting to the Russians. He’s only on screen for a matter of minutes but is pivotal to Tomas Alfredson’s sublime adaptation of John le Carré’s cold war spy novel. Tarr is a shadow man, full of clammy anxiety when we are introduced to him but later full of lovestruck compassion and the kind of steely pragmatism that served Eames so well in Inception. The scenes Hardy shares with his acting hero Gary Oldman, who leads the cast as taciturn spymaster George Smiley, are full of intrigue and heartbreak.

Locke (2013)

Director: Steven Knight

Locke (2013)

On the eve of the biggest concrete pour in Europe, foreman Ivan Locke abandons his supervisory role to attend the birth of his illegitimate child conceived during a business trip. He drives from the construction site in Birmingham to London, making and taking calls from his wife, son, colleagues and the mother of his new child. It doesn’t sound like much written down but Locke wins out because of its perfect simplicity and exquisite execution.

Hardy as Welshman Locke is the only character we see in the entire film (others are only heard), which after its opening shots never leaves the car he is driving. We feel every pang of guilt, every slap of sadness and loss of faith as Locke’s life crumples around him as he tries to do the right thing. Director and writer Steven Knight worked with Hardy on underrated TV crime drama Peaky Blinders and their trust in each other shows. Locke is a taut and tense modern British classic. As gripping in-car cinema goes, it’s up there with Spielberg’s debut, Duel (1971).

The Drop (2014)

Director: Michaël R. Roskam

The Drop (2014)

Aside from containing one of Hardy’s finest performances as Bob Saginowski, The Drop is a fitting swansong for James Gandolfini, whose erstwhile gangster Marv has long-since been usurped by the Chechen mob. Gandolfini provides impeccable support to Hardy, Marv’s ostensibly straight-forward cousin who tends bar for him. Bob is a quiet soul whose eyes betray nothing even when his mettle is tested by duplicitous Marv and the nefarious Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts as a twitchy, malevolent background presence). Noomi Rapace is also excellent as the self-assured, if damaged, Nadia.

Michaël R. Roskam directs Dennis Lehane’s script – full of dark humour, memorable characters and thrilling shocks – with aplomb. Lehane wrote the source novels for Mystic River (2003), Gone Baby Gone (2007) and Shutter Island (2009), but this was the author’s first feature film screenplay, based on his own short story ‘Animal Rescue’.

Legend (2015)

Director: Brian Helgeland

Legend (2015)

Having wowed audiences as the lead in summer 2015’s most exciting action film (Mad Max: Fury Road) despite rarely speaking, the autumn saw a totally different Hardy performance. Or rather, two of them. Legend is L.A. Confidential screenwriter Brian Helgeland’s film about Reggie and Ronnie Kray, two murderous East End gangsters who mixed crime with celebrity schmoozing in 1960s London.

While Helgeland’s film is a flawed one, Hardy is at the top of his game as both brothers. Some critics didn’t take to his almost-comic rendering of Ronnie, but Hardy is brilliant playing him as an odd, paranoid, proudly homosexual criminal. Hardy’s Reggie is something else entirely: he’s charismatic and in control for the most part, with viciousness reserved for a few startling scenes that leave audiences in no doubt what a terrifying prospect dealing with the pair must have been. Technically the work that went into Hardy’s twin performances, which involved playing both brothers every day, is a huge achievement. That the pair are so different, have their own quirks and distinct speaking voices (from the off-balance boom of Ronnie’s to the sleek smoothness and rhythms of Reggie’s) meant few were surprised Hardy picked up the best actor in a British Independent Film award at the BIFAs.

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