What does one think of Ned Kelly? Honourable Robin Hood character or treacherous thieving villain? In watching True History of The Kelly Gang, it’s doubtful that a viewer will come down fully on either side. This is to the film’s strength. It is a text which is more interested in displaying a notable historical figure as complicated and messy. I finished the film feeling none the wiser on how I felt about this historical figure. For director Justin Kurzel, this is possibly what he was aiming for.
Based on the 2000 fictionalised account of Kelly’s life written by Peter Carey, True History of The Kelly Gang is a tall tale writ large. It’s not only merrily flaunting the fiction of the Ned Kelly tale, but also wrapping and shaping the lore into a post-modern commentary of the complicated cloud of colonisation. The sprinkling of punk aesthetic, cross-dressing and homoeroticism feel deeply apt in a cinematic world which is fighting a culture war due to the fracturing of the monoculture and deep call for traditionalism from certain corners. To say that this is not your Grandfather’s western feels slightly trite.
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It is a genre that is ripe for revisionism, especially now that it is no longer the populist entertainment it once was. But Kurzel’s film holds a feeling of relevance especially now at a time where marginalised groups feel disfranchised. Through no fault of its own, True History of The Kelly Gang comes out at a time where feelings of historical oppression have come to boiling point. It would not be surprising if opinions of the film fall into distinct camps. There’s much to enjoy from this. Do we feel the interference by the film’s antagonists here justified? Is there empathy in Kelly’s plight when we observe the complicated upbringing laid out here? Is the rebellious contempt for authority something to embrace when we look at ourselves in our world shaped by the attitudes of the establishment? The allure of so many Australian based features from Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) to Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) is the grappling with these dichotomies, much like the American western.
Coming off the disappointing Assassin’s Creed in 2016, the Kelly source material and lack of video game audience expectation allows Kurzel’s film to explore themes with an effectiveness that the multi-million-dollar money-spinner simply was not allowed to. Festering, even borderline incestuous family dysfunction develops like mould. The sordid discord that escalates between Ned Kelly and Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) simmers to a streaming boil in a way the conflict within Assassins Creed feels tepid. There’s a brooding, almost horrific tension which harks back to Kurzel’s first film Snowtown (2011), which makes one feel that Kurzel has been allowed to get back to what he does best and get into his sinister depictions of desperation. Vulnerable people who hold no choice but to attach themselves to hostility.
What makes True History so compelling is its combination of being frightening and alluring. When the likes of Russell Crowe and Nicholas Hoult (the latter performing some top caddish villainy) turn up as father and friendship figures respectively, the power comes from not only their characters’ leverage but from their snake-like ability to charm. You will only trust these people if you feel that you have no choice. That further brutality and hardship lie in the distance with disobedience. To watch George MacKay’s Kelly fight between his fight and flee instinct is a strong part of the film’s appeal. MacKay’s tactile yet exposed performance elevates matters. Despite getting less exposure, it is an even more formidable display than his breakout role in 1917 (2019).
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As with all Kurzel’s work, the film is one with a brooding atmosphere and evocative imagery. It switches from boldness with fragility at the turn of a penny and never backs down, but more than that, despite some fragmented storytelling, it leaves a viewer examining what they watched in the best way possible. Finding the perfect way to tell a complicated story about a man with a history which is still under question. When a film has you finding out about the many other cinematic versions of the story to contrast and compare for a later date on your own time, then it’s certainly done its job.