When you hear characters say, “Make a name for himself,” “Rewrite our history,” and “Every man should be the author of his own history,” it becomes clear what a film has on its mind. It’s about creating your own story, your own myth, and telling your tale the way you want. And with an ironic title like True History of the Kelly Gang, it also becomes clear that maybe their version of events isn’t 100% to be trusted.
When it comes to historical veracity, that’s certainly something many have called out in director Justin Kurzel’s latest. At the same time protagonist and Australian folk hero, Ned Kelly (George MacKay), attempts to create himself, playing fast and loose with the facts, so does the film. A wild, violent, blood-slicked portrait of the outlaw, from childhood to his inevitable end, it’s a movie that calls to mind Marie Antoinette; a movie that, while ostensibly about history, has modern concerns and aesthetics. In this case, infusing the outlaw’s oft-told story with a frenetic punk rock edge and energy.
Set against the heavy-handed colonialism of the British, Ned, sold at a young age to a self-aggrandizing bushranger (Russell Crowe), a nice name for a stick-up man, lashes out at authority. When he comes of age, he discovers he’s the descendent of a long line of Irish rebels called the Sons of Sieve, a crossdressing troop of bandits, and embarks on the path that made him famous, striking at the invaders and their bootlickers.
While the meat of the story everyone knows is the latter part of his life, True History takes its time getting there. We don’t really get that part until nearly 80 minutes into the film. Up to that point, it’s more about Ned finding himself, or more accurately, making himself, and being made by his surroundings in the push-pull of nature versus nurture. There are sudden bursts of violence, this is a violent time in a violent land after all, but the real mayhem doesn’t begin until later. But when it does, look out.
Much like he did with Macbeth, Kurzel uses the visuals to bolster the thematic concerns. Sweeping expanses of dead trees and the barren, desolate outback, and the ramshackle hovels of the Kelly klan, juxtaposed with lush, opulent mansions of the wealthy, drive home the class strife and the oppressor/oppressed dynamic. Dark shadows and omnipresent smears of mud enhance the “dirt and disappointment” nature of their existence. Strobe effects, odd angles, and hypnotic slow motion create a surreal edge, building into Apocalypse Now territory, with Ned becoming, like Colonel Kurtz, more myth than man, a fiction in his own life.
Fresh off of 1917, MacKay plays Ned with a defiant streak. Even as a child growing into manhood, he stands up with a bold, rebellious air, to the point where his outlaw life may have been inevitable. Essie Davis as his mother, Ellen Kelly, fights and claws to maintain their frayed and fraying family, and Davis stuns. The ensemble cast also features nice performances from Crowe as Ned’s mentor, Charlie Hunnam as local law enforcement who has a history with the Kellys, and Thomasin McKenzie in a largely thankless role as Ned’s suffering love interest. Nicholas Hoult shines as another antagonistic English constable, charming and affable, but slyly vicious and scheming—this is a man who will ever so gently threaten a baby with a pistol.
The momentum slumps in a few places, and the film skims over large portions of the saga. This can be forgiven considering how many times Ned Kelly’s story has been told on screen, though we’re only told he’s become both this notorious criminal and folk hero to the common people, rather than seeing it for ourselves. Those unfamiliar with Kelly may find themselves a bit lost, though telling an accurate historical version of events isn’t what the film aims to accomplish.
Ferocious, captivating performances, an uncanny sense of mood and atmosphere that Justin Kurzel does so well, and a violent, esoteric crash into adulthood give True History of the Kelly Gang a compelling urgency. A period piece with a current interests, this never intends to be a history lesson, rather seeks to peel back the layers of a man and a myth and how both are made. [Grade: B+]