The biopic is a form of drama that’s nearly as old as cinema itself, but it isn’t at all hard to see its enduring appeal. A two-hour film is often the perfect means of being able to portray the life of a great man or woman (or, often to highly entertaining effect, a not-so-great figure), offering all the drama and interest of their story but without the long, boring trudge that a worthier biography can often sink into.
The correlation between Oscar wins and biopics has always been strong, but here are half a dozen of the absolute best to be found on streaming services at the moment.
Bronson (Amazon Prime)
Nicholas Winding Refn’s barking mad film about the strange life of Charles Bronson, Britain’s most notorious and probably most dangerous prisoner, represents the most extreme end of cinematic biography. Starring a fearless, and often naked, Tom Hardy as Bronson, it mixes broad farce, at times rising to almost Withnail and I moments of sublimity, with a strange and offbeat artistic sensibility. On release it was compared to A Clockwork Orange, because of its violence and omnipresent use of classical music, but this strange, brilliant picture is very much its own beast.
Legend (Amazon Prime)
Tom Hardy reappears in the more conventional but equally enjoyable biopic of the Kray twins, Legend, and the USP here is that he plays both Krays, the charming but nasty Reggie and the psychotic, limited Ronnie. On its own this would merely be a novelty, but Brian Helgeland’s film has a real feel for the more sordid side of Swinging Sixtes London, and it’s superbly cast, with appearances by everyone from Taron Egerton to Paul Bettany.
My own favourite scene involves a fruity appearance by John Sessions as the notorious Lord Boothby. The relationship between him and the Krays caused a political scandal that continues to resonate to this day.
The Social Network (Netflix)
David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s masterly film about the beginnings of Facebook also doubles as an excellent biographical study of its founder Mark Zuckerberg, played with twitchy malevolence and arrogant flair by Jesse Eisenberg in a career-best performance.
At a time when we are becoming increasingly aware of the value of our private data to our social media overlords, Zuckerberg here comes across as simultaneously brilliant and oddly pitiable, an emotional cripple whose ability to manipulate others is only equalled by his failure to understand the most basic things about his fellow human beings.
‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.’ Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Henry Hill, a Mafia associate who ended up betraying his fellow criminals, is justly regarded as one of the best crime dramas of the past few decades, as well as one of Scorsese’s finest films.
With superb performances from Ray Liotta, Robert de Niro and, especially, an Oscar-winning Joe Pesci as the psychotic and dangerous Tommy De Vito (a fictionalised version of the real-life Tommy ‘Two Gun’ DeSimone), it’s a fast-paced and entirely compelling ride, which firstly makes the mob world seem hugely glamorous before showing how empty – and terrifying – a life based on violence will always be.
Darkest Hour (Netflix)
Joe Wright’s film about Britain in early 1940 – the so-called ‘Darkest Hour’ of the title – was somewhat overshadowed on release by Christopher Nolan’s big-budget epic Dunkirk, but it is very much worth catching up on.
Its main appeal is Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning performance as Winston Churchill. Although it is undeniably a triumph of make-up (which also won an Oscar), Oldman manages to bring Churchill to recognisable life, cutting through many of the clichés and presenting him as a brilliant, if eccentric, man who was the leader that his country needed at its lowest ebb.
Shadowlands (Amazon Prime)
Portraying goodness on screen can often be a boring and thankless task, but in his presentation of Oxford don and Narnia creator CS Lewis, Anthony Hopkins manages to create a character the polar opposite of his notorious serial killer Hannibal Lecter. Richard Attenborough’s moving and beautifully filmed picture concerns the late-in-life love affair that developed between Lewis and the American poet Joy Davidman, which was interrupted by her being diagnosed with cancer.
It is a proper weepie – every bit the equal of Terms of Endearment, in which Debra Winger, who plays Joy, also starred – and the stately glories of its Oxford setting do little to sugar-coat the emotional trauma that eventually ensues. It also features Julian Fellowes in a small role, when he was better known as a character actor than a world-famous writer.