Most know the accounts of the infamous outlaw Ned Kelly. What’s up for interpretation is whether the most chronicled man in Australian history is a folk hero or an outlaw. Given that the film depicts Ned Kelly’s side of the story, you’d assume that True History of the Kelly Gang is arguing for Kelly’s status as a folk hero. But then the film amusingly begins with a short message reading, “nothing you’re about to see is true.” Justin Kurzel (Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed) has no interest in a by-the-numbers biography or hagiography, feeling free to indulge in anachronisms for his punk rock period piece that intersects with legend and rumour.
The film wastes no time in establishing the bushlands that Kelly grew up in as a desolate nightmare. A place where only the cruel and cunning could survive. Ned’s family eke out a living by stealing meat and selling moonshine, with Ned’s mother Ellen (The Babadook‘s Essie Davis) offering soldiers like Sgt. O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam, The Gentlemen) enough reward to not sniff around. However, Ned’s thieving leads to his father’s imprisonment and eventual death. To further salt the wound, O’Neil destroys the reputation of the Kelly patriarch as a frock-wearing loonie–a reveal that proves devastating in a household where masculinity isn’t just admired but expected. Ellen requires Ned to be the man of the household that her cowardly husband never could be.
Later, a chance encounter with a drowning boy puts young Ned on the fast track to high society. The boy’s mother offers Ned an opportunity to attend a prestigious academy, but Ellen swiftly rejects the woman’s proposal and seals the boy’s fate. Now, Ellen didn’t do this out of love, but so that she could turn around and sell the boy to bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe). Harry is a reassuring presence, one to show Ned the ropes of life that his father could never do. Soldiers, the British, and the rich are not to be trusted, so Harry offers the boy a chance to kill someone who’s wronged him. Ned relishes the opportunity to be around a man he respects, but that disappears once Harry puts a gun in the boy’s hand. Failing to kill his target, Ned runs home to mother, once again, a failure.
When we next see Ned, he’s played by a live-wire George MacKay, who’s shed all part of his breakout role as the taciturn Lance Corporal Schofield in 1917. Ned has been marked by his time away from home, but he must come home to the bushlands’ siren call. More truthfully, Ned is returning home to Essie Davis’ Ellen. Kurzel made a feature with Lady Macbeth in 2015, yet Davis is almost a more prominent bad angel sitting on Ned’s shoulders, driving him to sink himself deeper into a cesspool of violence and nihilism. Ned had a chance to escape his path, but Ellen explained to him that it was “blood and breeding that mattered most” and ripped that chance away.
Upon returning home, Ned comes across Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), where the two bond at a brothel. Fitzpatrick doesn’t initially appear as crude or vicious as Sgt. O’Neil and tries to establish favour with Ned, but he’s no different than any of the other British officers wiling into the bed of a Kelly woman. Fitzpatrick quickly reveals himself a blackmailer who is willing to shorten the sentence of Ned’s brother (Earl Kelly) in exchange for Ned’s sister, Kate (Josephine Blazier). Enraged by the escalating open hostility of the British and surrendering himself to blinding rage, Kelly recruits a gang of the downtrodden to launch a campaign of anarchy against the crown government.
Australia’s Jesse James has seen many films based on his experience, featuring actors ranging from Mick Jagger to Heath Ledger, but none are as lurid and subversive as Kurzel’s tale. Bold performances and hallucinogenic scenes tailor this Western from Hollywood “true story” to the discomforting truths of a legend. The erotic undertone of Ned’s relationship with his mother, as well as other members of the Kelly gang, present multiple opportunities to flesh out Kelly more, but a shorter running time limits such scenes to teases. One of a few instances where True History of the Kelly Gang might have been better served is by a limited series run. The screenplay by Shaun Grant attempts to trim Peter Carey’s nearly 400-page novel down to a more manageable two hours. While two hours allow for Ned’s origins and motivations to take hold, other longer takes where Kurzel lingers on Ned staring into the distance feel less contemplative and a wasted chance to tap into Ned’s psyche.
George MacKay’s intense turn as Ned Kelly is equally mesmerizing as it becomes clear that he will lash out against the oppressors that left their fingerprints on his wretched life. Here, MacKay expands on the range he displayed in Sam Mendes’ war epic 1917, trading muted heroism for cathartic rage and holding his own against the rogues’ gallery of maniacs and murderers played by Hunnam, Crowe, and Hoult. Hunnam and Crowe entertain as the twin brutes that provide most of Ned’s role models for what men are in the outback, trading one-liners and bullets in equal measure. But it’s Hoult who truly exceeds in terms of rank villainy. As Harry Power and Sgt. O’Neil, both actors are cruel but honest in their respective behavior. Hoult’s Fitzpatrick first tries flattery before committing indecent acts. At one point, Fitzpatrick interrogates a baby at gunpoint to get information out of Kelly’s love (Jojo Rabbit‘s Thomasin McKenzie, brilliant again). Once he’s discovered by his fellow officers, he claims he was merely “conducting an interview.”
While True History of the Kelly Gang defiantly lacks historical accuracy, it’s filled to the brim with a fiery punk pathos essential to a film about an outlaw. Kurzel rode high from 2015’s Macbeth into a spinning buzzsaw that was the film adaptation of Assassin’s Creed, but with his latest project, he’s proved again to be one of the best working filmmakers around. Welcome back.