By Calvin Law, MA, Law
Following acclaimed films such as Snowtown (2011) and Macbeth (2015), writer-director Justin Kuerzel draws up a brutal account of Australia’s most infamous outlaws to impressive effect.
Justin Kurzel takes a stab at the pervasive, ever-contentious presence in Australian pop culture Ned Kelly in his latest film, True History of the Kelly Gang (2020). Having been subject to several screen treatments in the past, with the likes of Mick Jagger to Heath Ledger playing the 19th Century bushranger and rural outlaw, Kurzel’s stylish outback Western adapts Peter Carey’s novel of the same name, and drops any pretense as a factual biopic of any sort.
This is an unabashedly fictionalised revisionist take on the Kelly gang, retaining the autobiographical structure of the novel through voiceover narration that brings us into the mind of Ned Kelly as he reflects upon his ‘true history’.
The film neither glorifies nor vilifies Ned Kelly, but rather opts for a more personal scope in showing his growth from boy (Orlando Schwerdt) to young man (rising star George MacKay). The film presents us with various formative experiences in Ned Kelly’s life and allows the audience to make their own judgements as to who Ned Kelly is: folk hero, villainous murder, a little bit of both.
Kurzel’s direction is often daring, embracing the outlandish nature of its revisionist approach to the Ned Kelly story. It is a feast for the eyes and ears with its use of lighting and Jed Kurzel’s heart pounding score in particular, creating a lurid atmosphere that sustains itself across the whole film, held together by the young actor Orlando Schwerdt and especially MacKay who does a great job of internalising Ned’s arc through each increasingly madcap sequence.
Kurzel’s direction is often daring, embracing the outlandish nature of its revisionist approach to the Ned Kelly story
MacKay, so impressive as the human anchor to the grand spectacle of 1917 (2020), depicts increasing madness and confidence with boundless energy and gravitas as Ned Kelly goes from stealing livestock to bank robberies, manslaughter to outright murders, and delivers a pretty strong accent to boot.
Ned is depicted by the film as having a stranglehold imposed over him by his loving but overbearing mother, played to perfection by Essie Davis. She has the tricky job of balancing the rough, grating edges of a rather unlikable individual with that of the genuinely loving maternal figure and nails it with aplomb. Russell Crowe is a whole lot of fun in his brief screen time as roguish outlaw and mentor Harry Power, toughman Charlie Hunnam makes a strong early impact as a brutish toxic influence in Ned’s life, and the various Kelly gang cohorts all make a strong impression, with particular mention to Sean Keenan as Ned’s best friend Joe Byrne.
The only cast member who feels a bit shortchanged is the very talented Thomasin McKenzie who disappointingly is given a very limited role as the entirely fictional wife of Ned Kelly, but she's good nevertheless. Best of the show however, is Nicholas Hoult who gives a unique take on snooty, sleazy British Constable Fitzpatrick. He is cold yet charismatic, chilling yet hilarious - often within the same scene - and each moment with MacKay scintillates with many possible interpretations of the exact nature of their characters’ relationship I’m sure we'll see plastered across the internet soon enough.
It is a feast for the eyes and ears with its use of lighting and Jed Kurzel’s heart pounding score
There is something to be said that the film doesn't go overly deep in its explorations of masculinity and criminal behaviour, particularly in the whole idea of the Kelly Gang wearing dresses to take their victims by surprise. This is, however, inevitable with the breakneck pace of the film that leaves it hard to dwell on any individual element too long, and Kurzel makes the sensible choice to leave things mostly surface level in a thematic sense, leaving it to the actors to delve a bit deeper into such aspects.
A consequence of this approach however, is that there are a few overly rushed sequences, particularly in the buildup to the climax, and a bit more editing wouldn’t have done harm to produce a more evenly-paced narrative structure.
Nevertheless, taking it as it is, this is an extremely entertaining and immersive cinematic experience that gets its plot points across well enough, while delivering a rather fascinating character study of Ned Kelly taking a long, hard look at himself in a historical and personal context.
True History of the Kelly Gang is showing at the Watershed until the 5th March.
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