TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Justin Kurzel

Stars: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe, Thomasin McKenzie, Sean Keenan, Earl Cave, Marlon Williams, Louis Hewison.

George MacKay in True History of the Kelly Gang (2019)

There has never been a definitive film version of the life of the iconic and controversial bushranger Ned Kelly yet. One of the first ever feature films was 1906’s The Story Of The Kelly Gang; since then we have had 1970’s Ned Kelly, starring a miscast rocker Mick Jagger in the eponymous role; and in 2003 we had Gregor Jordan’s take on the story starring Heath Ledger. There have also been a couple of tv miniseries about the life and crimes of the notorious bushranger and archetypal Australian anti-hero. And this latest film to explore this fascinating character, who is so ingrained into the psyche of the Australian identity, is unlikely to be that fondly remembered either.

True History Of The Kelly Gang itself is based on the 2001 Booker Prize winning novel from author Peter Carey, a fictitious novel written as a semi-autobiographical narrative from Kelly’s own perspective, which offered up a more subversive and revisionist take on the famous outlaw. Carey indeed takes some licence with the true story of Kelly and his exploits, and the film is suffused with plenty of anachronistic touches. Here we get more of a homoerotic relationship between Ned and his gang of tattooed, cross-dressing cattle rustlers and bank robbers, a somewhat bold and audacious interpretation that will certainly raise eyebrows amongst the historians. The film unfolds in three distinct chapters – Boy, Man, Monitor – all of which chart different aspects of his short life and the influences that shaped him. He was only 26 when he was hung in Melbourne Gaol in 1880.

We first meet Ned as an eleven-year-old (played by Orlando Schwerdt) who lives in abject poverty in a ramshackle hut in the wilderness with his domineering mother Ellen (Essie Davis, from The Babadook, etc). He is soon sold to outlaw Harry Power (Russell Crowe), who becomes his mentor in teaching him criminal habits. As an adult (played by British import George MacKay, currently also in the superb WWI drama 1917) Ned is essentially a good man until he has run-ins with the local police (represented here by Charlie Hunnam and Nicholas Hoult) and is pushed beyond his limits. He justifies his actions as some sort of rebellion against the colonial powers that govern the country.

Filmmaker Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, etc) brings his own uniquely abrasive, gritty and punk aesthetic to the overwrought and disturbing material, which has been adapted from Carey’s novel by screenwriter Shaun Grant (Snowtown, etc). This is not a subtle film by any means, and it bears some of that same brutal realism that permeated his true crime drama Snowtown. The climactic final siege at Glenrowan here lacks the expected drama of the confrontation and is mishandled by Kurzel. The limitations of the budget are immediately obvious with the sparse, grungy looking minimalist sets.

The film has been evocatively shot by cinematographer Ari Wegner (Lady Macbeth, etc), whose bleak but impressionistic lensing creates some surreal visual images and harsh landscapes, but there are far too many drone shots of the forest and trees that add little to the drama. Costume designer Alice Babidge eschews some of the more traditional choices for her characters, giving the film a more modern sensibility. There is another dissonant string driven score from frequent collaborator Jed Kurzel.

MacKay brings a tortured quality to his reading of Kelly. Davis is good as the desperate and poisonous matriarch of the family. However, the rest of the Kelly clan remain rather underdeveloped. Hoult is good as the unrepentantly corrupt Constable Fitzpatrick, who is essentially the film’s chief villain.

True Story Of The Kelly Gang explores themes of violent masculinity, family, responsibility, loyalty, colonialism, authority and violence, but it also challenges our notion of our own history and mythology, and our ideas of Australian masculinity and identity. But it is also a difficult film to watch, and will certainly not be to everyone’s taste.

★★

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