True History Of The Kelly Gang
George MacKay, Essie Davis, Russell Crowe, Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam
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This is Ned Kelly via punk rock, Derek Jarman and avant garde theatre, and fact-checking has no place in this inventively loopy psychodrama.
The story of Ned Kelly is so huge, so mythic, and so intrinsic to Australia’s national identity that it’s almost impossible to capture effectively in any medium. There have been several cinematic stabs (most notably 1970’s Ned Kelly starring Mick Jagger and 2003’s Ned Kelly starring Heath Ledger, both of which copped much criticism despite their obvious merits and sincerity) at the legend, but none stand as definitive. Director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed) doesn’t attempt it with True History Of The Kelly Gang either, but instead flips the Ned Kelly legend on its metal-plated head. Adapting (relatively faithfully) Peter Carey’s celebrated, award winning 2000 vernacular novel of the same name, Kurzel’s film is ripe with violence, vulgarity, homo-eroticism, and androgyny, and it departs wildly from what is considered “fact” when it comes to Ned Kelly.
Ned Kelly, however, has long since swaggered out of the history books and into the more verdant territory of myth. His story is Shakespearean, and Kurzel indeed treats Kelly’s story like many filmmakers have treated the work of Shakespeare (himself included with Macbeth), ripping it from its ancient moorings and re-dressing it and reinvigorating it for modern times. True History Of The Kelly Gang is stylistically anachronistic and overtly theatrical in tone; there is nothing even resembling “realism” here. Kurzel has crafted something big and crazy with this film, boasting not only a Ned Kelly with no beard, but one who rides around in a lacy dress with the intent of striking fear into his enemies by appearing to be stark, raving mad. It’s the sort of tampering with myth and legend that would make the purists rankle and moan, but True History Of The Kelly Gang is so wilfully off-the-rails that it doesn’t even invite such a conversation. This is Ned Kelly via punk rock, Derek Jarman and avant garde theatre, and fact-checking has no place in this inventively loopy psychodrama.
True History Of The Kelly Gang tracks the growth of Ned Kelly from boy (utterly brilliant debutante Orlando Schwerdt) to man (impressive UK import and 1917 star George Mackay, who brings a bruised, wild-eyed animalistic fury to the role), as he labours under the influence of his fierce, furious mother, Ellen Kelly (Kurzel’s off-screen wife, Essie Davis, is nothing short of extraordinary) and infamous outlaw and mentor Harry Power (Russell Crowe is fabulously Falstaff-like). While dealing with matters ferociously Freudian, Ned also has to contend with oppressive, exploitative cops (superbly embodied by Charlie Hunnam and Nicholas Hoult in fine performances) and his mother’s second, much younger husband, the Californian horse thief, George King (charismatic New Zealand songsmith Marlon Williams). Leaving his young lover, Mary Hearn (upcoming New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie, powerfully adding to her work in Leave No Trace, The King and Jojo Rabbit) and unborn child behind, Ned turns bank robber and ends up building an army of outlaws, including his best mate (though he seems like something more) Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan is excellent as the only male character in the film who doesn’t appear wholly deranged) and brother Dan Kelly (nicely played by Nick Cave’s lookalike son, Earl Cave).
Though occasionally jarring in its surrealism, True History Of The Kelly Gang is both seamless and fearless in its style, with Kurzel delivering an act of aggressive provocation that asks for no quarter. Any work on Ned Kelly will have its haters, so Kurzel seems to be screaming “Bring it on” at as many of them as possible. His intent is bold, and so is the filmmaking, with lucid lensing from Ari Wegner, a rambunctious score from Jed Kurzel, jazzy editing from Nick Fenton, and a ripping screenplay from Shaun Grant. Ingeniously questioning our idolatry of Ned Kelly while also celebrating it, True History Of The Kelly Gang rings with the outlaw’s very spirit: it’s a cinematic rebel yell all too ready to face a hail of bullets under the armour of its own nutty bravura confidence.