True History of the Kelly Gang Review
There have been adaptations of the Ned Kelly story for as long as cinema has existed - the world’s first feature length film, at a then unprecedented 60 minutes, was 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang. But although the quasi-mythical status of Kelly has endured for more than a century after his death, that same long held fascination rarely translates to the screen. Biopics starring Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger were released to mixed-to-muted responses, and the only Ned Kelly film to receive anything approaching acclaim was a low budget 2003 comedy parodying his enduring folk hero status.
True History of the Kelly Gang, director Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of Peter Carey’s widely acclaimed novel, embraces the mythical aspects of Kelly in the same way the source material did - abandoning any biopic pretensions immediately after a title card warning the audience “none of this is true”. Kurzel is the perfect fit for this approach, having previously abandoned straightforward adaptation in his woozily atmospheric take on Macbeth, and his defiantly artsy spin on the video game Assassin’s Creed.
This feels undoubtedly like his most accessible film to date, but one that feels caught in an internal conflict; unsure whether to subvert mythic legends with the same arthouse resolve as his fellow Antipodean director Andrew Dominik, or embrace its most masculine aspects to become the kind of hyper violent “lad movie” Guy Ritchie specialises in. It has frequent moments of brilliance, but often feels like it’s boldly refusing to go beneath the surface, merely feigning an interest in interrogating why Kelly is such an enduring cultural figure.
We follow Ned Kelly (George MacKay) from his early years, from being sold to work for bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe) as a child, to forming a gang who committed a string of police murders in later life. The broad strokes are the same, and it all builds up to the infamous police shootout, Kelly wearing a suit of bullet proof armour. But aside from that, this is historical fiction with the historical firmly crossed out.
This isn’t Kurzel’s first true crime film - and his loose reimagining of Kelly’s life feels deliberately designed to become a companion piece to his 2011 debut Snowtown. In that film, an abused teen became an accomplice to a string of murders after a notorious homophobe became acquainted with his family. True History of the Kelly Gang similarly depicts Ned Kelly’s introduction to violence as being the result of an unfortunate family acquaintance, who coaxes him into committing murders as a young age in order to be a man. Kurzel appears to be interested in the intersection between hyper masculinity and any behaviour that doesn’t conform to those ideals, but unlike in Snowtown, this isn’t explored with the same depth.
Boldly choosing to ignore historical fact outside of the broadest strokes does mean Kurzel can subvert expectations, and this is the boldest reimagining of Ned Kelly yet, depicting him and his gang as cross dressers, only ever going to fight while wearing women’s clothing. But this exists as nothing more than a provocative image, an undercooked homoeroticism that’s frequently undercut by the film’s inability to explore beyond the surface, and the overarching sense that it never wants to push things too far in this direction, lest it alienate the hordes of straight men who will make up a significant proportion of the audience. It’s the rare film that manages to get various members of its male cast completely naked, while bending over backwards to make sure the audience doesn’t actually see anything - Kurzel knows his audience, and therefore knows that any of the homoerotic themes he’s interested in exploring in tandem with a story about a male gang have to be watered down by default.
It’s easy to imagine that Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was Kurzel’s template for how to unpack to the mysticism that comes so inherent with a well trodden folk story. But his film is all surface level pleasures, never quite grasping the heart of its story, let alone anything it wants to subvert within - and for all the exquisitely staged action (the infamous final shoot out is impeccably rendered as a Gaspar Noé channeling moment of sensory madness) and game performances from the entire ensemble, it never leaves a true impression.
True History of the Kelly Gang is in UK cinemas on Friday 21st February