True History of the Kelly Gang Review
“Nothing you are about to see is true” is the opening text to Justin Kurzel’s 2019 drama. More than just a striking introduction to a film about real people and events, it raises questions that the film will continue to ask, answer, and sometimes poke fun at. Any biopic has to toe the line between fact and fiction, as most of the time real life doesn’t fit into the mould of a feature-length movie. This story, however, uses that uncertainty to its advantage.
Beginning in Australia in 1867, we follow the infamous Ned Kelly as a young child (an excellent Orlando Schwerdt) growing up in a barren landscape, under constant threat from the authorities. One such man is Sgt O'Neil, played by an engrossingly detestable Charlie Hunnam, who seeks to win the favour of Ned even as he humiliates him and his family. The mystery behind his father’s past opens up Ned’s mind to the history behind his people and connects it to his own frightening experiences with the ruling British forces. He is, in fact, “a son of Ireland, ripped from his land by his English oppressors,” but discovering his roots is only one step in his journey towards becoming a folk hero and scapegoat all at once.
Rather than simply glorify the exploits of the notorious outlaw or paint him as a vengeance-fuelled killer, Shaun Grant's script has us spend enough time with him to see how he succumbs to violence, and how his eventual violent rebellion fits in the context of an oppressed minority under duress. We're shown that peace for some is not peace for all, as Kurzel introduces us to the spiteful anger of his mother, Ellen (an extraordinary Essie Davis), then leads us to understand where those feelings come from.
It’s hard to watch this film in 2020 and not appreciate the similarities behind Ned's rage and those felt in protests around the world by people who believe that the law hurts them, and whose culture and histories have been stolen. The toppling of statues is itself an attempt to question and uproot the prevailing historical narratives given to us, and so Ned Kelly and his gang’s rebellion starts to feel all the more relevant. As Ned's voiceover tells us, "lies fester long after their invention." Kelly is beloved as a cultural icon by some and dismissed as a murderer by others even today. For some a madman who took lives and for others a folk hero fighting against colonial control. MacKay, who plays the adult Ned, grounds this myth in the emotional reality of a traumatised man trying to “be an author of his own history.”
Thankfully, there’s nuance behind the lens when it comes to the depiction of the violence that comes with this rebellion. The action is brutal and unpleasant, traumatising for a young Ned. Yet eventually violence becomes his only path to take, and as he takes up the gun the adrenaline hits in manic gunfights that capture the fear of the carnage and the small catharsis it delivers, like a trial by fire. MacKay embodies the shame and rage of the character masterfully. He puts his whole body into the performance, sometimes with a meek childlike state of shock, other times like a feral animal trapped in a corner.
Justin Kurzel captures the darkness of this world with effective landscape shots, where it seems like nature itself is conspiring against Ned and his kin. Jed Kurzel’s score is as memorable and atmospheric as it was in 2015’s Macbeth, with occasional bursts of punk rock reminding us of similar struggles a hundred years on. It’s not an entirely grim affair, as it has enough sparks of humour to remain watchable throughout. The supporting cast adds much-needed life to the film, with an equal parts funny and unsettling performance from Nicholas Hoult and a delightfully funny Russell Crowe as the no-nonsense bushranger Harry Power.
If there is one major flaw to point out, it’s that this finely-tuned balance of absurdist humour and its deathly serious subject matter doesn’t quite last until the credits, with the third act losing its vigour and becoming a little too on-the-nose with the points it's making. While the film could be tighter, it nonetheless remains captivating for the majority of its runtime while raising thought-provoking questions about the real people behind the myths they leave.
True History of the Kelly Gang is out on DVD & Blu-ray from July 6th