True History of the Kelly Gang, directed by Justin Kurzel, is a gruelling, often strange depiction of an infamous Australian outlaw, and the story unfolds in a bleak 19th-century landscape. Starring George MacKay as the titular Ned Kelly, the film initially seems like it’s going to be an action-packed Western, but it quickly settles into a slow-burn movie about the painful realities of men and women, living in a divided society. The film is based on Peter Carey’s novel of the same name, with the screenplay adapted by Shaun Grant, and it provides a mythical account of Ned Kelly’s life.
Opening with the statement “nothing you are about to see is true”, there’s an undercurrent of peril and defiance in the film, right from the early scenes when we see the Ned Kelly’s origin story, told by Ned himself in a voice-over. As a child, Ned endures a dysfunctional upbringing, often left to his own devices in a wild, uncontrollable environment. When his mother “sells” him to Russell Crowe’s Harry Power, he learns to live and survive as a criminal, picking up the tricks of the trade under Power’s tutelage. By the time we’re re-introduced to Ned as a young man, he’s become a full-fledged outlaw who’s always on the run. Throughout his journey, he meets a wide range of people that shape his motivations, including a corrupt constable (played by Nicholas Hoult), and their relationship proves to be a turbulent one.
Despite its visual grandeur and historical particulars, True History of the Kelly Gang is quite messy. The fragmented storytelling makes the film hard to watch, with scenes that jumble around and don’t have much of a flow. The lack of coherence is a real detriment to the film, as it takes away much of the satisfaction. It’s admirable, however, of Justin Kurzel to take such a subversive approach to the subject material. The film plays out like a revisionist Western, depicting a morally corrupt world, where a boy is forced to grow up far too quickly – and the story is essentially about how Ned’s upbringing has affected him as a man. Everything is cold and cruel in True History of the Kelly Gang, with men, women and children constantly being abused and threatened.
All of these elements make for a meaty narrative, but the storytelling isn’t well maintained, and there’s some unnecessary violence too. Having said that, the film is always plausible. The characters and the movie’s setting are portrayed with an urgency, and Kurzel digs deep into Kelly’s origins, showing him as a man who’s torn between different parts of himself.
A brutal, dark film that gets under your skin. But True History of the Kelly Gang remains only worth seeing if you’re interested in the film’s historical context or have read the original novel. It does, though, contain some cracking one-liners that many different viewers can appreciate, including: “Write your own history, for you are my future now”.
Dir: Justin Kurzel
Scr: Shaun Grant
Cast: George McKay, Russell Crowe, Nicholas Hoult, Essie Davis
Prd: Lizz Watts, Hal Vogel, Justin Kurzel, Paul Ranford
DOP: Ari Wegner
Music: Jed Kurzel
Run Time: 124 mins
True History of the Kelly Gang is available on Digital on the 22nd June and Blu-ray and DVD on 6th July