Opera Meets Film: How Nicholas Winding Refn’s ‘Bronson’ Employs Opera to Mythologize its Infamous Title Character

By David Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a film section or a film in its entirety and highlight the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Bronson.”

How do you tell the story of Britain’s most famed and violent prisoner?

That’s the question that faced director Nicholas Winding Refn and writer Brock Norman Brock. Finding a way into the mind and world of Charles Bronson, a man who has been imprisoned for decades, most of them spent in solitary confinement, can turn into a grinding, unwatchable experience for a viewer.

But the writing-directing duo’s famed film from 2008 manages the feat through some deft mythmaking.

Told from Bronson’s perspective as a “performance act,” the film latches onto several unique stylistic quirks that immediately alienate the story from its grimy surroundings and add a bit of cognitive dissonance to the proceedings. The filmmaking’s stark and gritty feel (from the dirty sets to even the grainy imagery) is constantly undermined or counterpointed by other visual elements that keep the story surprisingly light. Tom Hardy’s engaging performance is the key here, but Refn’s choice to include several famed opera excerpts throughout also plays a major role in defining the film’s tone.

It all starts right from the beginning when Bronson starts telling the story of his youth from cradle to prison. In this montage, Refn employs “Va pensiero” from Verdi’s “Nabucco,” a rather odd choice, especially to explore a sequence that, despite its explicit violence, tends toward the comedic with several gags repeated throughout and even a flirtation gone wrong in a café. Refn, as he does throughout the film, times his cuts to some of the music’s major high points (the first orchestral outburst in the introduction to the chorus is pronounced the moment young Mike Peterson, a.k.a Bronson, gets into his first fight at school).

But Verdi’s piece is one of yearning and nostalgia, a complete contrast to watching the young Mikey Petersen repeatedly get himself into trouble until at the height of both the piece and the sequence, he ends up in jail for a minor offense.

As the first operatic excerpt of the film, it’s a rather strange experience, but in remembering that we are seeing the story through Bronson’s eyes, it is the first indication of how music expresses how HE sees himself.

And that brings us to the second operatic excerpt, which comes rather quickly thereafter. This time, we hear Siegfried’s funeral march slowly materialize in a sequence where he refuses to do work in the jail. As the music builds and builds to its first explosive outburst, Bronson becomes increasingly violent. He tells the audience that this was the moment where he decided that his fame would come from his revolt within the prison system and at the climax of the scene when the orchestra explodes with Siegfried’s heroic theme over pronounced chords, Refn cuts to a slow-motion shot of Bronson being carried down the hall, celebrated like a hero by the rest of the inmates. The coronation by Bronson himself has been completed.

The “Nabucco” and Wagner actually play pretty crucial roles in the bookending sections of the film. But before we get there, we need to take stock of four more operatic excerpts layered throughout the film.

The next two come courtesy of Verdi. The first of these is the chorus “Chi dona luce al chor?” and it comes as Bronson makes his first journey out of the jail. The sprightly piece is juxtaposed with static images of Bronson against a vast cityscape. The combination creates a perverted sense of a hero’s journey to a new destination but plays into Bronson’s consistent exploration of his own travails as legendary.

A few scenes down the line, when Bronson proposes to Alison we hear “La Vergine degli Angeli.” The scene is one of rejection and pain for Bronson and as portrayed by Hardy, rather pathetic. Bronson hands her the ring and remains speechless and even immobile while she rejects him openly. For a man renowned for his animalistic violence, the scene dovetails with other previous moments of Bronson’s timidness in front of Alison. And while his proposal is a complete embarrassment, Verdi’s sublime piece (one of his most heart-wrenching), gives the scene a degree of “pathos” (in so much as this film’s off-kilter tone will allow it).

The same can be said of the other two operatic excerpts that crop up at the film’s climax when Bronson holds Phil, his prison art teacher, hostage. He demands to hear music and for the first time in the film, we are given diegetic opera selections, the famed Flower duet from “Lakmé” followed by the humming chorus from “Madama Butterfly.” These two pieces, associated with calm and an embrace of nature actually suit a rather tense moment. We have no idea what the explosive Bronson is doing, but as he paints Phil’s face for his new “still life,” his own body awash in offensive black paint, there is a calm and collection to Bronson that has not been present at any other point in the film. It’s almost like he’s embracing his own nature, but also using it toward a different aim and purpose. As with any other scene in the film, there is an absurdity in the tonal contradictions between the ethereal beauty of Délibes and Puccini’s music in connection with an artistic hostage sequence, but brings the journey of Bronson’s development home.

And that’s when we come back to Wagner and Verdi one last time. Refn employs the final climax from Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” as a lynchpin to it all. Bronson doesn’t actually change so much as he simply embraces his desire and need for continued violence. After finishing off the painting of Phil, he calls for the guards to enter. As they do, he engages in hand to hand combat with them as we hear the God’s March into Valhalla. As an overt excerpt from the Ring, it bridges us back to the early passage from “Götterdämmerung;” we’ve come full circle for Bronson with nothing really changing at all. The Gods’ march into Valhalla is depicted as a triumph in the opera and yet, anyone who knows the Ring Cycle knows that this final repeated statement is nothing more than an empty victory. There are three operas left that will destroy their Valhalla. And so it is with Bronson, that despite giving himself an epic musical theme to “go out on,” a title card tells us that he’s remained in prison for over 34 years, with 30 of them taking place in solitary confinement.

And the film could just end there, but Refn adds one final touch that truly brings it all together. Over an image of Bronson locked up in a cage, we hear brief strains of “Va pensiero.” It’s brief and a literal door slams us out of hearing more of it, but it almost instantly brings the film right back to that opening montage. “Va pensiero” focuses on the Jews plight as they yearn for their home. “Oh memory, so dear and so dead!” bemoans the chorus at one point. Suddenly the chorus plays on an aspect of the story that Bronson has hidden from us – that regret of a life lost, a youthful innocence he never had. In returning to the beginning and his life before prison, the film ends on a tragic, painful recollection.

What could have been for the man who turned into Britain’s most dangerous and famous prisoner?


Opera Meets Film