The story of Ned Kelly is one of the most mythologized tales in recent history, so much so that it’s almost impossible to unpick fact from fiction when it comes to the exploits of this legendary criminal and his notorious Kelly gang. This adaptation of Peter Carey’s Booker prize winning novel True History of the Kelly Gang does nothing to un-blur the lines. The first words to appear on the screen are “nothing you’re about to see is true.”
Justin Kurzel directs this stylish and punk-inspired western, from a screenplay by Snowtown writer Shaun Grant. Following a bruising foray into Hollywood with the dire videogame adaptation Assassin’s Creed, Kurzel is back on more familiar ground with True History of the Kelly Gang. Released in the UK in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, it unfortunately disappeared without a trace when it was in cinemas, but can now be enjoyed via digital release.
The film is told in almost dreamlike, episodic style, with a terrific first act focusing on the young Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) and his relationship with his mother (brilliantly played by Essie Davis). She sells Ned to the notorious bush ranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe) in order to make a man out of him, which ultimately leads him on the path to becoming a hardened criminal. When we skip forward in time to meet Ned as a grown man (now played with muscular ferocity by George MacKay) he is an ex-con, bare-knuckle boxing for the amusement of the aristocracy.
The legend of Ned Kelly tells us that as a man he waged war against the colonial police, raging against injustice, and protecting the common folk. Kurzel’s film is less interested with this vision of Kelly, and instead tries to get under the skin of the man. In doing so he creates a bloody and brutal portrait of man more at war with his own fractured psyche than with the police. This will frustrate viewers hoping for a more A to B story. If you’re looking for the classic western ‘young man becomes outlaw, forms a gang, robs banks, kills lawmen’ version of this story, this most definitely ain’t it. But don’t worry, that version has been filmed plenty of times before.
Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Ari Wegner, the film has a distinctive visual style. There is a stark, poetic beauty, to the way Kurzel and Wegner capture the apocalyptic Australian landscape. The beauty however is punctuated with vicious brutality and the ugliness of human nature. There is an unrelenting cruelty throughout the film, seemingly to emphasise what an awful world it is that Ned was born into, and how it shaped him into the man he would become, but it can be a tough watch at times.
The film is anchored by the superb central performances from MacKay and Davis, but even with those to latch on to, the second half of the film descends into a bit of a mess. The meandering, episodic style robs the film of any tension as it’s never really clear what is going on, and what is driving Ned. Kurzel drowns the final act with impressionistic imagery, conjuring a kind of hallucinatory horror film out of Kelly’s final stand. It’s visually stunning, but by the time the film gets where it’s going, I’d lost all interest.
Cast: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Thomasin McKenzie, Charile Hunnam, Russell Crowe Director: Justin Kurzel Writer: Shaun Grant / Peter Carey (novel) Released By: Picturehouse Entertainment Certificate: 18 Duration: 124 mins Release Date: 22nd June 2020