‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ Revives a Tale of Australian Outlaws With Unhinged Poetic Heart
The best tales about outlaws have a fierce poetry at their core. “True History of the Kelly Gang” burns across the screen with that kind of spirit. Its starting point is the life of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly, who in the land down under has the kind of infamous historical reputation akin to Jesse James in the United States. In the hands of Justin Kurzel, one of Australia’s best working filmmakers, this story becomes more than a mere biopic or recounting of events. Instead Kurtzel transforms it into a dreamlike proto-punk epic, full of fire and pathos.
We first meet Ned Kelly as a young boy played by Orlando Schwerdt, living in the backlands of a rural 19th century Australia still under British colonial domination. Life is brutal in this world of forests and shacks. Ned’s mother Ellen (Essie Davis) raises her children with few illusions as she is forced to service a local constable, Sgt. O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam). The situation grows dire when Ned’s father is arrested for stealing cattle and dies in prison. To Ned’s resentment he is briefly sold off by Ellen to a sharp bushranger, Harry Power (Russell Crowe), who gives him his first taste of crime and the use of a gun. Years later Ned returns, grown (now played by George MacKay), but not living any easier. His siblings are also grown and have taken up life as bushrangers. There is also a new face of corrupt law and order in the land, Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), who feigns friendliness but is no less oppressive than the other English overlords. Cornered by a world with few escapes, Ned is gradually pushed towards becoming what fate may have always had in store for him. His family is descended from the “Sons of Sieve,” a secret society known for crossdressing while carrying out raids.
“True History of the Kelly Gang” is spawned out of a Booker Prize-winning novel by Peter Carey and like the book it uses Ned Kelly’s “voice” to evoke the tale. It was a wise choice to use a work of historical fiction because it allows Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant to break free from the pretensions of making a straightforward biography. Kurzel has never been one to shoot a stale adaptation. His 2015 film, “Macbeth,” told Shakespeare’s classic play with hellish colors and feverish editing. Cinematographer Ari Wegner, who recently revived the giallo cinema look for “In Fabric,” captures 1800s Australia with gothic lighting, bringing a jagged elegance to a harsh world. There’s almost a medieval flavor to the texture of this movie as the Kellys live in confined spaces lit only by fire or lamplight. Kurzel boldly applies a more contemporary punk energy to the aesthetic, throwing around titles that look like CBGBs graffiti. The ethereal music by regular collaborator, and brother, Jed Kurzel is mixed with a few punk tracks during a bare-fisted boxing match and end credits. As a work of subversive history, the movie brilliantly evokes the sense that all rebels are united across time. George Mackay looks less like the historic Ned Kelly and more like Johnny Rotten or Iggy Pop. The crossdressing and style of the cast defy the typical, hyper masculine look of your typical western outlaw. Constable Fitzpatrick would be perfect in Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” Brad Pitt’s Jesse James wouldn’t feel at home around this wild bunch… or would he?
In terms of genre this is a film worthy to be ranked among the best in recent Australian westerns like John Hillcoat’s “The Proposition.” It attains a mythic quality by disavowing a simplistic plot and instead charting Ned’s growth starting at childhood. What is a running theme is how Ned and his mother are shaped by a society with little compassion for the downtrodden. Men in uniform represent abuse and sexual manipulation. Russell Crowe’s bushranger, puffing his pipe and openly insulting constables looks more honorable. He teaches the Kelly children a dinner table song combining “constable” with another particular “c” word. This is a terrain where social norms are set by colonialism. The Kellys are Irish and are therefore seen as nothing more than subjects by the British authorities. Ned doesn’t just become the leader of an outlaw gang. He is formed by years towards that end. The writing gives him strong complexity, he rarely finds the courage to shoot someone face-to-face and an English teacher gets the hint that there could be a good writer hiding somewhere behind Ned’s sad visage. He’s certainly the brightest of the Kelly gang, who look like a rock band with rifles. In fact, Ned’s father Red Kelly is played by Ben Corbett of the Australian “swamp rock” band Six Ft Hick. Among the Kelly siblings there’s more Australian rock royalty with Earl Cave, son of Nick Cave, playing Dan Kelly, who is proud of having outlaw DNA. Yet it is George MacKay’s performance that is a potent simmer. He plays the role like a quiet man hiding a time bomb of emotions inside. There’s a human element he brings to a part that could have easily been played over the top. Essie Davis as Ellen is a brilliant counterpoint. She’s a woman who has been disappointed so often by an oppressive world that she never minces words, goes for the jugular and encourages Ned to never hold back in pulling the trigger. She takes on many lovers, while never being intimidated by men. It is Ellen’s capture later on that finally forces the Kellys to revive the Sons of Sieve and carry out bank robberies and shootouts with local British authorities.
Once the Kelly “gang” goes on the rampage the film becomes a near-hallucinatory experience. Surrealism and history mix. Ned begins to sport “bulletproof” armor in the form of steel helmets, which is based on the historical record, and a kidnapping culminates in a ferocious standoff soaked in blood where colonial officers surrounding a hideout seem to glow in neon cloaks. Kurzel isn’t out to just relay an urban legend, he is making pure cinema. His images are searing and the camera never looks away, even when a man is hung and he gasps final breaths beneath a tightened hood.
“True History of the Kelly Gang” is wildly revisionist, full of unforgettable images and eloquence in its savage frames. It’s true to the punk spirit by celebrating an art form while subverting it. Yet at heart it’s a great film because it tells a story exceedingly well, with characters that are tragically romantic. Films like this are almost a tonic, reminding us that many rebels, like poets, are not made but born.
“True History of the Kelly Gang” premieres April 24 on VOD.