DIRECTED BY: JUSTIN KURZEL/2019
The Kelly Gang’s story has been told many times on the silver screen, but for this go around, director Justin Kurzel tries to bring some punk rock sensibility and an all-star cast to tell his version of the Peter Carey novel of the same name, True History of the Kelly Gang. While he gets a lot right with the casting, attitude, and the visuals, the story doesn’t gel enough to feel the impact of Kurzel’s rebel yell in telling it.
Young Ned Kelly (Orlando Schwerdt) is a young child living with his family in the bush where his mother Ellen (Essie Davis) turns tricks to keep food on the table. His father Red (Ben Corbett) helplessly watches his wife debase herself, not doing much to help, despite his anger. A former prisoner in Van Diemen’s Land, Red never came back the same. Eventually he is imprisoned for a crime Ned commits, stealing beef, by Sgt. O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam), a man who is a frequent client of Ellen. Eventually, Red dies in prison.
Ellen, desperate for money for the young mouths she needs to feed. sells her son Ned into the services of the infamous bushwrangler, Harry Power (Russell Crowe), who teaches Ned about stealing, hiding out, writing one’s story, and the rules of the trade. Harry even gives Ned a shot at killing Sgt. O’Neil as a revenge for his death.
True History of the Kelly Gang chronicles Ned’s journey as he grows to be a young man (now played by George Mackay), boxing for money and eventually coming home to find his mother engaged to a man who has a bastard-baby with Mary Hearne (Thomasin McKenzie), the woman Ned has fallen for at a local whorehouse. It is here where he meets Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), a man who has started wooing Ned’s sister, and who will be Ned’s undoing after Ned shoots him in the hand protecting his mother.
The rest of the film is Ned going on the run with his brothers and friends trying to escape the English, as they adopt a method of wearing women’s clothing in their escapades because as they say about the English’s reaction to them, “nothing scares a man like crazy”. Eventually this will all come to a head when they take prisoners and have a shoot-out with the English ala Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where the English are depicted as orbs of light, from Ned’s vantage point inside a giant suit of armor he has fashioned for himself.
True History of the Kelly Gang tells us in the opening frame that none of what we will see is true. The entire narrative of the film is the history Ned is writing himself for his unborn daughter with Mary. The real Ned Kelly had no offspring, so the warning is appropriate. So, heading into the film, just know that this film has much to say about colonialism, class struggle, fluid sexuality, and rebellion, wrapped loosely around Peter Carey’s fictionalized novel, and the actual events of the Kelly Gang. But as is often true, the legend of the Australian outlaw is more interesting on screen than the actual story itself.
Taking a cue from the punk rock sensibility of the film, the style of clothing sometimes transcends the era it depicts, particularly as it relates to the women’s clothing that the Kelly Gang don. Some of the music featured in the film (especially the credits) gives more of a postmodern appeal to this fictionalized 19th century history. The cinematography is fantastic and helps paint the dark dread and despair that Ned Kelly’s family lives in and reacts to.
The cast is top-notch and Russell Crowe gives the most powerful performance of the film despite his extremely limited screen time. Nicholas Hoult is also mesmerizing, and channels some of the brilliance he exhibited in his performance in The Favourite. George Mackay is the man whose star is rising though, particularly after last year’s Best Picture-nominated film 1917. Thomasin McKenzie also follows up Jo Jo Rabbit with another strong performance. Finally, Essie Davis, who starred in the fantastic horror film, The Babadook, serves as Ned’s moral center (or amoral center), as his mother who, despite her constant debasement, helps Ned see clearly the collective oppressive boot on their necks by the English.
In terms of attitude, style, performances, and visuals, True History of the Kelly Gang is all top notch. Where it loses its collective punch is what it leaves out, causing the story to not quite gel into something that could have packed a stronger punch. Ned is not really a sympathetic character or even an anti-hero. The real Kelly Gang were reported to have robbed banks and shared it with those who felt the colonial oppression of the English as well, making him their version of Robin Hood. This film skirts those things, while alluding to them, but rarely helping us feel their impact. A little more in this direction and we might, as an audience, walk away from the film wrestling with the notion of whether he was a criminal or a hero, but generally liking what we had just seen. Instead, we walk away, a bit underwhelmed, despite all of the great promise this film holds.
True History of the Kelly Gang opens on video on demand platforms everywhere during our COVID-19 social distancing.