The act of storytelling is a constant presence throughout True History of the Kelly Gang, Justin Kurzel’s revisionist Western based on the stylised historical novel by Peter Casey. The opening titles make this reinterpretation clear: ‘nothing you’re about to see is true’, and the famous bushranger and his associates are rendered through an ahistorical punk aesthetic rather than a factual lens. While tossing accuracy aside, however, the film builds itself around the imagined words of Ned Kelly himself, setting the record straight for posterity – ‘and may I burn in hell if I speak false.’ He returns to the idea of taking authorship and rewriting his and his family’s history with increasing frequency throughout the film, but this searing opening declaration establishes the film’s unapologetic urgency. What follows is a tempest.
As the child and adult Ned Kelly, Orlando Schwerdt and George MacKay are equally excellent. Schwerdt captures the boy’s precocious knowledge of his family’s shameful place in the world and his struggle with the dichotomies of those he looks up to. When the outlaw grows up, MacKay’s physically and psychologically harrowing performance transforms Kelly from a man with hope for a kinder future to one who is ready and willing to burn civilisation to the ground. The screenplay moves slightly too quickly during this descent into darkness, and it is to the actor’s credit that he never loses Kelly’s humanity or believability in this free fall.
The supporting cast more than keep up with the virtuosic central performance. As Constable Fitzpatrick, Nicholas Hoult proves himself once again a supporting actor who – when presented with scenery to chew – will deliver in spades. Russell Crowe makes Ned’s bushranger mentor Harry Power an endearing yet horrifying creation. Thomasin McKenzie’s Mary, Ned’s love interest, is perhaps the only underwritten character in the film, having relatively little to do aside from giving the outlaw a legacy to fight for.
As matriarch Ellen Kelly, Essie Davis towers over her famous son’s coming of age. She captures the mother’s pride and tenderness with the ruthlessness and compromise needed to survive as the wife of a convict, keeping her from becoming merely a prop in the Kelly story. Interestingly, the ugliest and tenderest parts of Ned’s character come out around Ellen – his constant horror and judgement of her prostitution, which is often the only thing keeping their family safe, contrasts against his wholehearted defence and reliance on her. This world is not kind to women: sexual favours and threats are commonplace, notably when the British colonial officers are involved. Ned may rage that ‘there is not a man born who could have the patience to suffer the injustices I have’ – and those are bleak indeed – but man appears to be the operative word.
Technically and visually, the film is a triumph. Kurzel expertly utilises every shot in his two-hour run time to build a hostile, haunting atmosphere. Wide shots emphasise the helplessness of the transported against the indifferent Outback, acting as canvasses for unspeakable brutality; the gentler scenes more often take place indoors, literally and figuratively protected from what awaits. Unlike his 2015 Macbeth, Kelly Gang does not get bogged down in the visuals at the expense of its furious pacing. With Jed Kurzel’s dissonant score adding to the mood, the film becomes a feast for the nerves.
Some of the film’s ideas, unfortunately, do not have the space to realise themselves thematically amidst the action. The dresses donned by Kelly and his men during their raids was inspired by the real-life Kelly associate Steve Hart, but their dramatic significance is built around multiple passing references that end up undermining each other and the film’s earlier conversations around sex, gender, and autonomy. The film almost has something to say around this intersection with oppression, but it amounts to little more than an oblique acknowledgement of toxic masculinity and the interconnectivity of colonial and patriarchal forces – a frustrating stagnation in a film of such boldness elsewhere. A more astute film may have delved deeper into the politics and psychology, but Kurzel may not be the director for this narrative.
Exploring the power of narration and passing down of histories is where True History soars. Some publicity around the film have touted it – and the novel on which it is based – as a narrative for the ‘post-truth’ age. This seems an ungenerous assessment. Stories about stories are inherently fascinating – the choices and questions of who tells, and retells, and retains authorship invite endless dissection and evoke multiple meanings. In this regard, True History brings to mind the Starz television drama Black Sails, which played fast and loose with the Golden Age of Piracy and Stevenson’s Treasure Island to create a powerful treatise on colonial historical narratives and those who slips through the cracks. These pictures are as angry as they are creatively, radically hopeful, raging against the winners’ history books in struggle and dreams of a different, freer world.
True History is, of course, fiction, and never claims to be more than a stylish aggrandisement of the outlaw’s legend – down to the anachronistic modern touches on the unforgettable costumes. This, however, does not negate the emotional stakes – if anything, the framing tosses out both the history and the myth in favour of the humanity and tenderness that both tend to suppress. The duality of artifice and belief, self-determination and inevitability, is perfectly illustrated in a brilliant, baffling final act twist that throws all seen so far into an entirely new light. By crossing beyond plausibility, this tale marks itself as no more than a reimagining – but one born of necessity and survival. To quote a character in this pivotal scene, it becomes ‘a story worth telling.’
True History of the Kelly Gang might fall just short of greatness – not every character or theme is given adequate space to breathe across its frenetic two hours. That said, its audacious scope, unrestrained performances, and aesthetic boldness mark it as a notable accomplishment whose outrage and hope will resonate long after the credits roll – and what story wants more than that?
True History of the Kelly Gang is in cinemas now
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie