Current Issue #488

Film Review:
True History of the Kelly Gang

True History of the Kelly Gang
George MacKay in True History of the Kelly Gang

Gawler-born director Justin Kurzel’s latest is drawn from Peter Carey’s celebrated ‘historical fiction’ novel, and while there’s much here that’s damn impressive, the thoroughgoing oddness of it all should be a problem for some punters.

A project that was nearly made by Irish director Neil Jordan in the early 2000s, this makes up for Kurzel’s work on the awful Assassin’s Creed epic, but is no history lesson about Australia’s most famed bushranger, despite that title.

In fact, most movies even vaguely depicting Ned Kelly (1854 – 1880), however roundabout or satirical, typically get it all seriously wrong: 1970’s Ned Kelly, for example, has a wimpy Mick Jagger(!) as the outlaw and barely disguising his fancy accent, while the dire 1990s comedies Reckless Kelly and Ned do everything they possibly can to be ahistorical, and even Gregor Jordan’s supposedly faithful Ned Kelly (2003), with a hairy Heath Ledger, isn’t exactly accurate. And so, perhaps, Kurzel’s movie and Carey’s novel deserve brownie points for not even pretending to get the facts straight?

Opening with a subtitle that states “Nothing you’re about to see is true”, we then hear the voice of the adult Ned writing the story of his life for his son (in actuality he never had one) and insisting that everything he’s about to tell us IS true. The first section of the narrative (‘Boy’) follows the childhood of “dust and disappointment” the young Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) experiences growing up in a virtual shed somewhere outside Melbourne with his mother Ellen (Essie Davis, Kurzel’s offscreen missus) and a cruel, reportedly kinky Dad.

Sergeant O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam), a character almost entirely made up, attempts to encourage the lad, but a far greater influence is grizzled, grungy bushranger Harry Power, who’s played by Russell Crowe in what really is the Russell Crowe-iest performance he’s delivered in many a moon. Acting as a sort of murderous mentor, Power (who’s never been seen in a proper feature film before) also instils a proto-punky hatred of authority in the kid, who grows up to be played by bizarrely clean-shaven Englishman George MacKay (who also appears in Sam Mendes’ 1917, released last week) and often looks, acts and sounds more like a member of The Clash than mythical folk hero Kelly.

But what is Ned rebelling against? Well, in addition to the sleazy O’Neil, there’s also the deeply despicable Constable Fitzpatrick, a stand-in for the corrupt colonial forces, who’s played, pretty jarringly, by the usually amiable Nicholas Hoult. It’s quite a feat of against-type casting, as the boyishly handsome Hoult portrays the creepily perverse Fitzpatrick with insidious charm and ugly humanity, which rather reminds us that Kurzel’s first feature film was Snowtown.

And if you want more curious or queasy sexual overtones, there are plenty: Ned’s brother Dan (played by Earl Cave, son of Kelly expert Nick) commits crimes while in drag to freak out his prey; Ned obviously has a bi-curious interest in his bestie Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan); and a plot thread involving fictional prostitute Mary Hearn (Thomasin McKenzie, also in Jojo Rabbit) is turned decidedly icky because she looks so awfully young.

Featuring another fine musical score from Justin’s younger brother Jed, this is frequently stylised within an inch of its life and, here and there, recalls everything from Sidney Nolan’s famed Kelly painting series to even a whiff of the Sex Pistols. But yes, almost none of it is exactly ‘true’.

Ah well, as Ned would have said, “Such is life.”

Reviewer Rating

True History Of The Kelly Gang (MA) is currently screening at the Regal Theatre, and will stream on Stan from 26 January

DM Bradley

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