Since its inception, filmmaking has been a vital vehicle to develop humanity’s myths and legends. Acts of rebellion and criminality are aptly suited for such mythologizing. Many films romanticize and give rational explanation to the exploits of larger than life criminals, including the likes of Clyde Barrow and John Dillinger. Following suit, director Justin Kurzel chose the 19th century Australian outlaw with Irish roots, Edward (Ned) Kelly, as the notorious subject for True History of the Kelly Gang. The screenplay is an adaptation of the eponymous 2000 novel by Peter Carey about Ned’s gang who robbed banks and killed coppers throughout the Victoria-New South Wales borderlands from 1878 to 1880. Contrary to the film’s title, this is a fictionalized portrayal of Kelly’s life. Audiences view the evolution of Ned from a brave, impressionable and impoverished boy (Orlando Schwerdt) to an adult and maniacal revolutionary (George MacKay), always in opposition to English authority. Ned is trapped by his cursed Irish lineage and doomed destiny, and so Kurzel presents the man’s life of hard knocks, heartaches and dead ends in a crude and violent manner. True History of the Kelly Gang explodes like a Molotov cocktail, one that is fueled by punk spirit and more androgynous costuming than a New York Dolls album. There are select moments of tenderness and beautiful scenery, but they are tucked within many disturbing scenes, some of which viewers may find unsettling to watch. Early on, when Ned feels most vulnerable and deeply hurt, he learns from his mother that nothing in life is free. The price is sometimes tremendous.
Right from its start, True History of the Kelly Gang immerses its audience in a world that is built upon secrets and lies. The introductory text “Nothing you are about to see is true” foreshadows many elements of the plot. Fittingly, cinematographer Ari Wegner enriches the film with aerial shots of the misty, golden hour Australian Badlands, which exude an air of mystery. Characters appear in medium close-ups and jagged camera angles. At times, they are hidden amongst the wheat fields or appear in shallow focus, engaging in secrets of their own, then surfacing at the appropriate times. Low-level lighting often gives these characters a warm effect, but also highlights the twisted smiles and secrets they hide behind their false fronts. Ned beautifully states during the introduction that “I have come to learn that secrets shackle one tighter than any chain, and lies fester long after their invention.” Secrets and lies of these characters end up costing them dearly and divide them from one another.
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Kurzel and his team create a never-ending visual feast (or nightmare) about a family whose lives rival the tragedies of Hamlet and the scheming of Macbeth. In the running for the most dangerous character is Ellen Kelly (Essie Davis), Ned’s mother and matriarch of the Kelly clan. Davis masterfully portrays a survivalist, who is rough around the edges — conniving and ruthless like her male counterparts. Maternal instincts are at Ellen’s core, yet she is not the reflection of a Hallmark Mother’s Day card. Frustrated by the weaknesses and failures of her husband, Ellen extols young Ned as the man of the house when he steals a calf to feed the family. She repeatedly attempts to “seduce” her sons into a life of crime. Throughout True History of the Kelly Gang, her prevailing presence is that of a contrarian. Though predominantly a masculine soul inhabiting a hardened female body, Ellen ultimately becomes an angelic spirit, draped in white sheets.
As Ned Kelly, both Schwerdt and MacKay complement each other well and keep audiences guessing about the character’s true motivations. As Young Ned, Schwerdt uses his eyes and rapscallion grin to communicate a genuine sense of youthful curiosity, and shows versatility in his facial expression when required. MacKay’s performance as the older Ned keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. He effectively conveys physical and emotional pain. The depth of MacKay’s acting ability shines forth to a greater degree than his better known performance in 1917 (2019).
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One of the stand out performances is that of Russell Crowe as Harry Power. Serving as young Ned’s bushranger mentor, Crowe’s skilled acting and charm not only break up the monotony of the first act, but also establish the groundwork for the two-faced nature of all the characters to follow. Power’s scruffy-bearded appearance, gentlemanly ways and wickedly cheeky sing-along may dupe viewers into thinking that True History of the Kelly Gang, despite its raw introduction, will blossom into a light-hearted Robin Hood tale. It doesn’t take long to learn that Harry is a blunt instrument, as his viciousness plants the seeds for Ned’s inner demons.
At times, this repetitive cast of misfits and scoundrels falls short of potential. Nicholas Hoult is well suited as Constable Fitzpatrick, but his smooth-talking ways and manipulation of the law render him too similar to that of Sergeant O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam). The interactions of Fitzpatrick and Ned don’t carry the same weight as the lush cinematography Wegner employs for their scenes. As Joe Byrne, Sean Keenan suffers from similar circumstances. In real life, the character was Ned’s best mate, but his presence in True History of the Kelly Gang is limited and rather ineffective. A further fleshing out of Ned’s family dynamic, particularly with his younger brother Dan (Earl Cave), might have fared better. Ned’s wife, Mary (Thomasin McKenzie), is an endearing diversion from the scoundrels and a striking contrast to her husband’s mother. Mary’s relationship with Ned enables the revelation of his capacity for normality (which is short-lived). Though she is tainted, Mary is almost too sweet and refined to believably fit into the setting. Ultimately, these shortcomings prove to be non-detrimental to the overall experience as the movie’s punk style and formidable ending outweigh these limitations.
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It’s the punk motif of True History of the Kelly Gang that distinguishes MacKay’s depiction of Ned from previous portrayals, including those by Mick Jagger in Ned Kelly (1970) and Heath Ledger in Ned Kelly (2003). Kurzel envisioned the Kelly Gang as a punk band, and that’s precisely the sort of raw power performance that MacKay delivers. The androgynous nature of some punk bands links well into the attack strategy of the bushrangers to destabilize those they attack or rob by wearing dresses. As part of the cast’s preparation for True History of the Kelly Gang, Kurzel instructed MacKay and the rest of the Kelly Gang actors to spend a few weeks writing songs and performing them in dresses in Melbourne, Australia as a punk band under a name of their choosing. Fully embracing this challenge and diving into the characterization, MacKay and his colleagues provocatively named their band Fleshlight. For True History of the Kelly Gang, screenwriter Shaun Grant skillfully produced MacKay’s poetic punk dialogue. The lead actor delivers his lines with a blank generation stare that’s reminiscent of punk icon Richard Hell. Along with his fellow actors, MacKay wrote the original punk songs that Kurzel features towards the end of the film, with lyrics akin to Lou Reed. A line from one of these original songs, “Everywhere,” aptly captures the essence of Ned: “I’m my mother’s husband and my father’s son / And I am a product of where I begun.”
True History of the Kelly Gang’s editing, effects and shot composition demonstrate an entire spectrum of styles. The landscapes have scope and texture that one finds in the film epics of David Lean. They quickly transition to paranoid framing and intricate detail similar to the style of Stanley Kubrick. Other scenes exhibit dream logic editing, as the dialogue switches to past tense, then cuts to scenes that take place in both the present and beyond. The light show which accompanies Ned’s transformation into a revolutionary resembles David Lynch’s aesthetics. The strobe effects of the final battle scene are especially impactful, leaving viewers like Ned himself, stunned like a deer staring into car headlights.
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Inspiring filmmakers will appreciate that True History of the Kelly Gang shows that a Marvel Studio-size budget is not a necessary prerequisite for a high-powered action film. And MacKay is a talent that will continue to make waves and will be very much at the forefront of this new age of cinema. As far as perpetuating the legend of Ned Kelly, Kurzel leaves viewers with an unresolved assessment of whether the man was a hero or villain. Perhaps purposefully, Kurzel and Grant do not evoke sympathy for the real Kelly to the same degree that Todd Phillips and Scott Silver do for the title character in Joker (2019) or how David Mackenzie and Taylor Sheridan similarly generate sympathy for brothers Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) in Hell or High Water (2016). If Kurzel’s presentation of Ned Kelly’s preoccupation with writing his own story and explaining/defending his actions for posterity is historically accurate, then Ned would be a little disappointed that Kurzel did not romanticize his legend. Nevertheless, Kelly’s legend lives on and continues to be a captivating story.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.