Australia 1867. The audience is told that nothing they’re about to see is true as a bushranger named Ned Kelly narrates his story. But his account of his story isn’t necessarily the truthful one. Most are familiar with reading a celebrity’s autobiography for the first time and realizing how the subject’s own words often contradict other texts. Events in their lives are glossed over and changed to fit the image they want the world to see of themselves. Their life almost becoming Arthurian, a legend so mixed with fact and fiction that you begin to question if they were even real. Stories can easily be rewritten, and True History of the Kelly Gang plays with this mythicism with dramatic flair.
Based on Peter Carey’s novel of the same name, director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant present a gothic western set in the colonial Australian badlands where Irish settlers are ruled by the English with an iron fist. In an interview with Deadline, Kurzel states, “I think that sometimes we get caught up in historical accuracy actually being the truth, when it sort of ignores truth at times. I don’t really care what the wagon wheel looks like. What I really care about is the inherent truth of the character, and how those times could have felt.” The film isn’t your typical gang story, focusing more so on the crimes committed than a character study. Kelly Gang takes importance in forming an image of how Ned Kelly became Australia’s most infamous criminal, whether true or not. From a very young age, Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) was surrounded by horrible male influences. Charlie Hunnam’s Sergeant O’Neil feels like your typical “bad cop” who uses the family’s impoverished lifestyle to take advantage of them. He pays Ned’s mother, Ellen (Essie Davis), for sex and his father, John (Ben Corbett), doesn’t do anything about it. When his father is arrested, Ned is made to grow up fast. Ned is now the man of the house and afraid to disappoint his mother as she pushes him to be the man his father never was. The fear of inheriting his father’s cowardice fuels the criminal he would become.
The film is split into sections that highlight specific times in Ned’s life, and his journey to manhood begins when his mother sells him to a thief named Harry Power (Russell Crowe). As Harry puts it, Ned is now “stepping out of [his] mongrel life into something new.” The young boy is introduced to a new world of riches, but also violence. He gets his first taste of murder and revenge, and his first sensation of blood spattering on his unblemished face. As young Ned, Schwerdt is astounding in his first feature film role. It’s an emotional and impactful performance, as he must embody a boy who’s going through feelings of anger, betrayal, shame, guilt, and fear all at once. He’s a big star in the making, and George MacKay as adult Ned complements him well.
As an adult, Ned is now a fighter, but the lessons he’s been taught, that heroes are born through violence, cloud him. Returning home, he finds a place he no longer recognizes: a lifestyle of thievery. The film becomes an engaging family drama as Ned’s moral principles clash with those of his siblings and mother. He’s very much a man fighting to not succumb to the mayhem of what it now means to survive. However, fueled by the unfair arrest of his mother, his morality crumbles. Having been taken advantage of by law enforcement his whole life, and given no justice now, he executes a fight against the establishment, recruiting other young men and women who have been abused by the system. And the Kelly Gang is born.
Ari Wegner’s cinematography is the film’s most defining feature, along with Alice Babidge's costume design. One of Kelly Gang’s first scenes is a stunning shot of the Australian landscape. Soaring like an eagle, the camera follows above as a horse gallops below with its rider among burnt trees. The gothic western aesthetic is established, but so is the Kelly Gang’s signature style. There’s a man on the horse, Ned’s father, but he’s wearing a red dress. This look is one of the many liberties that Carey took in his book. “The dresses were worn as armor,” Kurzel explains. “They come from the legend of the Sons of Seive, and the Irish using dresses and makeup to give the appearance of going mad. What could be crazier for an English soldier than a mad Irishman in a dress? That’s half the battle won.” (The Sons of Sieve, an Irish rebellion group, is no legend, but some “fake history” created by the source material’s author.) At first, Ned seeing his father wearing a dress is humiliating and an embarrassment, but later, he embraces the look. It’s established that the English are afraid of everything they don’t understand, everything that is “queer,” but their gender-bending becomes liberating. This expression of sexuality is cool, sexy, and seems natural for them. With this, of course, comes the queer coding, especially with regards to the relationship between Ned and his friend, Joe (Sean Keenan). They’re basically that meme that reads: “Get rid of the longing. We can’t let people know we yearn.” Their long looks, their roughhousing, being nose to nose as Ned recites prose…they look like they’re about to kiss (and you want them to).
Kelly Gang is a brutal watch at times, and its brutality is hardest to watch when it’s inflicted on Ned’s mother, Ellen. She’s been dealt a cruel hand. Essie Davis is far from her comedic Phryne Fisher role here. Ellen is a hard woman and quite wicked, but also a fierce and unpredictable lioness who lets out her claws. This is a big cast, with many mentioned above, but the most villainous character (alongside Ned you can argue) is Nicholas Hoult’s Constable Fitzpatrick. He’s truly disgusting, predatory, and so cruel you can’t wait for Ned to get him. Thomasin McKenzie makes an appearance as Ned’s fictional romantic interest, in a role that feels too secondary to her talents. With these many characters and lack of backstory, the film can be hard to follow at times if you’re unfamiliar with the Kelly Gang lore. This isn’t the film’s biggest fault, however. There are some action scenes here that, while few, are executed quite poorly with shaky cam and GoPro close-ups on Ned’s face. While the close-ups make these scenes more personal, it limits how properly executed the action sequences can be. Also, strobe lights… there are so many strobe lights. In a scene that should be the most impactful one of the film, the final battle in Ned’s story is hindered by these effects. It’s dangerous to those with epilepsy, but even to someone who isn’t normally photosensitive, the strobe lighting is so intense that closing your eyes is a must, so you miss some of the action.
True History of the Kelly Gang isn’t perfect and may not be an accurate depiction of the bushranger’s life, but it’s interesting to see a film reflect on how easily stories can be changed. Harry teaches Ned the importance of documenting his own story because he says, “If I leave it for the English to tell, they’ll only fuck it up and steal the proceeds.” We all want the last word, but how many would make it a dishonest one?
Movie Score: 3.5/5