True History of the Kelly Gang (2019)
Director: Justin Kurzel
Screenwriter: Shaun Grant
Starring: George McKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Russell Crowe, Thomasin McKenzie, Charlie Hunnam, Earl Cave, Sean Keenan, Orlando Schwerdt
Justin Kurzel’s films don’t tend to give viewers an easy ride. In fact, they’re usually a bit of an ordeal for your very soul. Macbeth was relentlessly moody, Snowtown was mercilessly oppressive and the less said about Assassin’s Creed the better (though admittedly for different reasons). True History of the Kelly Gang is still a pretty tough watch, being another story presented in Kurzel’s usual harsh and brutal style, but it’s nice that it features a zongo energy and even a bit of humour in it as well.
In late 19th Century Austalia, the son of an Irish convict, Ned Kelly (Orlando Schwerdt), leads an impoverished life in Australia before he is taken under the wing of outlaw Harry Power (Russell Crowe) and subsequently imprisoned for violently assaulting a police officer. Upon his release as an adult, Ned (George MacKay) joins and eventually leads a gang intent on revolution against the oppressors of the Irish-Australian population, the colonial British authorities.
“Nothing you’re about to see is True/True History of the Kelly Gang”.
The opening caption/title card/statement of intent says it all: don’t come to THKG for realism, come for a punk performance piece.
If the game isn’t given away by Ned leaving prison wearing a New Romantic jacket, then the punk rock song that jarringly sounds like it’s playing over loudspeakers during a bare-knuckle fight in a 19th century mansion should make things clear. Expect lots of sex, violence, sexual violence and perhaps the record for the number of C-bombs dropped in a film – notably, Crowe has a hilariously mischievous scene singing a very rude song about “the constable” to a dinner table of children, taking great care to over-emphasise the first syllable.
Ned Kelly has become a folk hero in his homeland of Australia. The crime spree of the most famous “bush ranger” (Australian outlaw) has been reappraised and recontextualised in sociopolitical and moral terms over time. Given this; why not take storytelling liberties akin to the numerous outlandish retellings of Robin Hood? Well, Mr. Hood is still technically fictional, but when a real historical figure’s reputation becomes legend, then the line blurs beyond recognition.
There have been straight biopics of Kelly (including the first dramatic feature film), comedies, even musicals loosely based on his life and times, so this could be one of the first in a long line of historical revisionist arthouse Kelly movies. Some of the more bizarre details in the film – the dangerous gang wearing dresses and later makeshift body armour, and the number of times Kelly was shot by the police wearing his “bucket” – have some basis in reality, but generally the historical figures and events are used more as jumping-off points for a filmmaker doing his own thing.
Being a Justin Kurzel film, True History of the Kelly Gang is visually spectacular – long tracking shots across desolate and almost apocalyptic outback landscapes, surreal dream imagery and deeply shadowed interiors abound. The final action scene is quite literally dazzling, with a line of advancing police officers illuminated phosphorescently against the pitch-black night and firing continuously into the cabin the Kelly Gang are hiding in. It’s through these arty elements, which are striking in isolation, that the director’s flair is able to clash with the film’s tone and performances in an important and effective manner.
Russell Crowe is probably only in the film for 20 minutes if that, but he hasn’t been this good in years – as criminal Harry Power he is a charming, sweary bear fond of salty songs, wine for breakfast and tying up lawmen’s nether regions. Colourful and really nasty turns from Charlie Hunnam and Nicholas Hoult as British constabulary also stand out, but it is the taut, dangerous energy from lead actor George MacKay (1917), the natural charisma of Schwerdt and the formidable power of Essie Davis as Kelly’s mother that truly breathe life into this film.
Life is portrayed as unforgiving in the manner of many recent Westerns (Hostiles, The Homesman, more than half of the chapters in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), and it truly feels as if people are only really out to survive. That is, until it becomes personal. This one probably shares more DNA with another grim Australian Western, The Proposition, that was coincidentally scripted by songwriter Nick Cave whose son plays a key role in this film. The outlaws in these Antipodian Westerns see themselves as standing for something, having ideals and making a difference beyond simply lining their pockets.
True History of the Kelly Gang is a striking, stylish and far from conventional fictional take on a real life. Those with an aversion to Kurzel’s work to date won’t be converted, but his devotees should get a lot out of this smorgasbord of strong but mismatched elements. Stories on film can be both gritty and surreal, grounded and dreamlike, fact and fiction, and your bewilderment at the end result isn’t necessarily a bad thing.