It’s not really an exaggeration to say that as long as movies have been around, there has always been, through all periods of time, movies about Ned Kelly. The 19th-century bushranger, born just a few years after Jesse James and Wyatt Earp on a different frontier across the pacific, was the subject of what’s widely considered to be the very first feature-length film: 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, an hour-long glorification of his exploits that exists today in pieces, the footage as distorted as the facts. Over a century since, Kelly’s rise to the status of folk hero — the “national symbol of Australia” considered by some — coincided with a steady stream of big and small-screen dramatizations, with everyone from Mick Jagger to Heath Ledger to Australian footballer Bob Chitty taking on the role of the outlaw. All of which, though, raises the question, Why make another biopic about him? What hasn’t been said already about this famous/infamous outlaw from the bush?
True History of the Kelly Gang, Justin Kurzel’s at-once grand and grounded new take on Kelly’s endlessly retold story, finds an answer in the matter of perspective. Despite its title, the movie isn’t any more factually accurate, per se, than any stirringly embellished depiction of his crimes. It’s based, after all, on historical fiction: the bestselling, award-winning novel of the same title by Peter Carey, who wrote the book from Kelly’s first-person perspective while taking numerous liberties with his biography. What distinguishes this adaptation is the unintuitive focus of its interests. Kurzel, working from a screenplay by Shaun Grant, pushes the dramatized-to-death details of Kelly’s outlaw days to the margins, focusing instead on the formative experiences that put him on a collision course with the authorities and destiny. True History of the Kelly Gang is after not just the man behind the legend but also the traumatized boy, even as it can’t resist his slide into notoriety with some hushed awe, epitomized by the striking early image of a figure on horseback, galloping full speed across a barren landscape.
“Nothing you’re about to see is true,” says an opening disclaimer, all but the final word disappearing as the full title fades in to replace it. We then open on a grown Ned (George MacKay, with the prose of a feral dog, but with fear and desperation in his eyes) as he pens a letter to his unborn child, promising that the backstory he’s sharing will “contain no single lie.” It’s a smart way to foreground the film’s position at the intersection of fabrication (Kelly fathered no known children in reality) and deeper truths of psychology and national character. Certainly, no previous movie about Kelly has made the Australia of the late 1800s look so dangerous, grimy, and unglamorous. The film leaps back in time from its opening scene to an exceptionally rough upbringing on the inhospitable terrain of rural Victoria, then still firmly under British control. It’s there where an adolescent Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) lives in a drafty shack with multiple siblings. His father (Ben Corbett), an Irishman brought to Australia as a convict, drinks and sits. This leaves his mother (Essie Davis) to provide for the whole clan, which she does by selling her company, so to speak, to the local lawmen.
A solid half of the movie is devoted to the hardships of Ned’s childhood, each paired with a corresponding reaction shot of the boy absorbing these lessons on the evils of the world. He’s torn between the twisted loyalty that his resentful mother instills in him and the no-less-damaging guardianship of various cruel and hardened men, including a police Sergeant (Charlie Hunnam) who pays for the pleasure of his short visits and the eccentric outlaw Harry Power (Russell Crowe), who later buys young Ned from his mother. It’s a gallery of bad role models and good performances. Davis speaks every one of her lines as though there’s venom in her mouth, while still offering glimmers of maternal warmth — the bait in her character’s trap of obligation (she’s essentially a Lady Macbeth figure). Crowe, meanwhile, hasn’t been this effortlessly amusing in years; you celebrate Harry’s disappearance from Ned’s life later on but mourn the movie’s loss of his vulgar rapscallion wit.
All of it leads to the implication that Kelly was a product of his environment — that all the tensions of colonial Australia played out across the narrative of his life. That makes True History of the Kelly Gang a different kind of myth than the gunslinger variety: It’s the story of a boy waging a losing battle for his own soul against destiny, history, social status, and lineage. The film is practically a nightmare about Ned, his family, Australia, manhood, womanhood, and how hard it is for poor people to escape the class they were born into. Over and over again, Ned resists the call of violence thrust on him by those looming over his life. It gives this often explored material a fresh charge of tragedy — essentially we’re watching a prophecy be fulfilled. And Kurzel invests it with an almost Shakespearean gravity, build up with a deep intensity. Even breaking the movie into three sections: childhood, adulthood, and the gang’s violent end.
You could say the film is caught between a mythic outlook on Kelly and a desire to demythologize him. Kurzel doesn’t totally resist outlaw cool: When the movie leaps abruptly into the manhood section, it’s with the anachronistic punch of a punk anthem, Ned’s suddenly grown body contorting backwards beneath the British flag, like a defiant black sheep of the empire. In this section he soon earns an adversary in Nicholas Hoult’s cold-hearted Constable Fitzpatrick — the kind of colonialist villain who will put a gun to a newborn for leverage and then arrogantly complain when it starts crying. Yet there’s a reluctance that comes and it aligns with Ned’s own that the movie finally leans into the criminal misadventures passage of the plot. True History of the Kelly Gang relegates the outlaw moves to its final forty-five minutes, covering them in montage or just omitting them entirely. We never see the Kelly Gang knock off any banks, nor do we dive into Kelly’s celebrity.
In this outlaw movie, maybe for the first time, the crime spree is a footnote. True History of the Kelly Gang suggests that the real battle was not with the Victoria police but the forces — human and societal — that conspired to push Kelly onto the path of violence. Which, of course, means that the film truly climaxes when he succumbs to that dark fate, not after. All the same, one can’t help but wonder if the movie could have used another hour — if the ideal version of this true-crime saga would work ever better in an epic format of Kelly’s life and misdeeds. But Kurzel still delivers a powerhouse ending, arranging a tied position between man and legend. The spectacular shootout showdown abstracts the action, pitting the fully, famously armored criminal against an army of faceless white silhouettes, while still presenting the unromantic reality of the situation. The film’s final minutes explicitly addresses the open question of truthfulness, implying that this fictionalized version of the story may be no more false than the official one. Ending on a final lonely shot, one that honestly gave me actual chills. They say history is written by the winners, and that saying lingers through that final shot. As you ponder if Kelly’s still remains unwritten, lost to the winds of time and buried under the rubble of hearsay. An intriguingly unique look at the life of an outlaw, True History of the Kelly Gang‘s tactile lyricism and brash punk sensibility tackles mythologizing and childhood trauma with a melancholic rebel yell.
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