Ned Kelly’s short, violent life has deep ties to the history of the movies. Released in 1906, The Story of the Kelly Gang is literally the world’s first dramatic-length feature film. There have been several versions of his story since then, with Heath Ledger and Mick Jagger taking on the role of the Australian outlaw folk hero. True History of the Kelly Gang is the latest revision of this material, and director Justin Kurzel avoids linearity or traditional character development. Like his wild adaptation of Macbeth, he uses an audacious palette to depict violence, madness, and death. Parts of the film are difficult, even unpleasant, but that is perhaps the only way to make sense of an imperfect folk hero.
The screenplay is an adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel, widely considered to be one of the finest books in the English language. It has a novel’s patience in how it reveals its themes, and a bizarre array of supporting characters. A significant chunk of the film shows Kelly as a boy, where he learns outlaw ways from Harry Power, a thieving bushranger with abundant charisma. Russell Crowe plays Power as somewhere between a gentleman and a blowhard, someone who teeters between civilization and man’s primal nature. That is also where Ned ultimately finds himself: played as a young man by George MacKay, Kelly barely contains his rage at the unfortunate station in which he finds himself. By the time he convinces his fellow outcasts to take up arms against the police, it is more an afterthought than a revolution.
True History has the messiness and contradiction that you would expect from some with Kelly’s reputation. Yes, Kelly was wild and put on a bulletproof armor – looking sort of like the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail – but an educated man observes he wrote with lucidity and was self-aware about the tragedies that befell him. His penchant for criminality is borne out of parental figures who saw family, not the law, as the only institution that matters. Essie Davis is ferocious as Ellen, Ned’s mother who easily rationalizes all her bad behavior, a kind of defiant grandiosity that clearly has an effect on Ned.
Most of the film revolves around melodramatic incidents where, in the throes of emotion and action, these hardened men and women reveal their true selves. By that metric, Nicolas Hoult leaves the strongest impression as a (fictionalized) cop, one whose threats of violence are about as psychotic as I can remember. For someone who started his career in About a Boy, Hoult conjures scary reserves of reptilian evil.
Kurzel does not depict these flashes of brutality like an action film, or even a thriller. Extremities seem to interest him, whether they’re a cacophony of noise and color, or desperate periods of inky silence. In Ned’s last stand, when he charges the cops like he has nothing left to lose, there is no sense of scale or battle. Instead, Kurzel zeroes in on McKay’s manic eyes, barely peering through his armor, as if thin steel and panicked breaths are his only comforts. Traditionally beautiful images are infrequent, like a lone rider rushing through the marshlands of Kelly’s youth, so unconventional compositions mean that we never quite ease into what we are seeing. Justin’s brother Jed Kurzel once again serves as the composer, and you can hear post rock influences in his clangy, primal score (the original trailer for Macbeth used “Lunacy” by Swans, and that would be a good fit here).
The unresolved question about Kelly Gang – or one that is left to the viewer – is what to make of Kelly’s status as a modern Robin Hood. We are left with two striking images: an educated man railing against the Kelly Gang, with everyone tut-tutting in their black tie outfits, and another him hanging from the gallows. Both sides twist each other’s viewpoint, telling distortions and lies by omission, so where one comes down on Ned Kelly says a lot about how they feel about Australia generally. That is a lot of material for one film to cover, but Kurzel and his collaborators get there by staying outside the norms of storytelling and good taste. In McKay’s capable hands, this Ned Kelly seems like he was always on the verge of chaos. Kurzel understands the need for that release, and what can happen when filmmaking skill constrains it.
You can order True History of the Kelly Gang via your preferred On Demand platform. Here’s the Amazon link.