Can the device of one actor playing two characters in a film ever avoid being gimmicky?

Tom Hardy is about to play both the Kray twins in a film called Legend – here's a short history of actors doubling up on screen.

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I’m looking forward greatly to Legend, the new movie about the Kray twins, and not only because it stars Tom Hardy, who has already appeared in two of my favourite films of the year (Mad Max: Fury Road and London Road). It bodes well that Legend is written and directed by Brian Helgeland, who has shown that he can be playful (A Knight’s Tale was one of his battier projects) as well as proficient (he wrote LA Confidential). But it will be interesting to see whether Hardy and Helgeland can overcome between them the inherently gimmicky conceit of having one actor share the screen with himself.

The last attempt to dramatise this story, Peter Medak’s haunting and underrated 1990 film The Krays, plumped for nature over special effects. The Kemps, Gary and Martin, were cast as Ronnie and Reggie in that instance, whereas in Legend, Hardy is doubling up in both parts. There’s no doubt he’s got what it takes. (Even if there were no other available evidence, his 2013 one-man-movie Locke, in which he was stuck in the driver’s seat for the entire film while any co-stars were present in voice only.)

I do find, though, that the suspension of disbelief demanded when an actor appears twice in the same frame is among the hardest of all imaginative leaps that a cinema audience is required to make. Tell me that aliens are poised to attack our planet and I’ll go with that. Give me a phalanx of superheroes or a bomb on a bus and I won’t roll my eyes or scoff. Unlike some viewers, I don’t even mind a wandering or indeterminate accent. Show an actor conversing with his or her own self, however, and something in me resists.

I don’t have a problem if we’re talking about clones. The numerous Michael Keatons in Multiplicity or the handful of Claire Daneses in It’s All About Love cause me no trouble: these facsimiles are built into the narrative, so no pretence is required. But if the object is to convince us that we are watching separate entities, I come unstuck.

Even when the performances are as thoroughly and skilfully delineated as the ones given by Jeremy Irons as identical twin gynaecologists in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, the sceptical voice in my head still won’t pipe down. It violates one of the basic laws of physics: that the same person can’t be in two places at once. No wonder that this can be used so well for sinister effect—such as when Robert Blake, as the unnamed, chalk-faced apparition in Lost Highway, is shown to be both in the room and on the other end of a phone that he has just handed to a stranger. (This fitted in a film that was all about identity doubled or divided.) Playing it straight, reaching for realism rather than a heightened effect, is another matter.

Advances in technology might help to silence my doubts. When the eye-contact between an actor and his or her digitally-inserted double is even a millimetre off, it can throw instability into the frame; the subtle degradation or fuzziness in the image. which used to occur when two halves of different shots were matched together, is less prevalent now. Legend may have overcome those flaws altogether.

Genre and context are also not to be discounted. In the comic free-for-all of a Parent Trap, Austin Powers or Eddie Murphy/Nutty Professor movie, there isn’t much at stake except the next laugh; in a Peter Sellers or an Alec Guinness comedy, the dexterity of the actor in question is at the centre of our enjoyment, as it shouldn’t be in a drama. And there wouldn’t be much point objecting to Adam Sandler playing both a brother and his garish sister in Jack and Jill when this is the sole reason for that film to exist.

Still, if you’re going to cast one actor in multiple parts, a little inventiveness is never a bad thing. One of the cleverest moments in John Waters’s 1974 trash gem Female Trouble shows Divine playing both the victim, the grotesque, psychopathic schoolgirl Dawn Davenport, and her own roadside attacker. “Transvestite Actor Rapes Himself” may sound like a rejected Day Today headline but it was all in a day’s work for Divine and John Waters—a filmmaking duo who really deserved to be called legends.

Legend opens 9 September. A John Waters season is at BFI Southbank throughout September and October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.