Australia’s infamous outlaw and folk hero gets a post-modern, punk rock update. True History of the Kelly Gang treads into familiar territory with a fever dream interpretation. Director Justin Kurzel skips a straightforward narrative with a segmented, wildly stylistic and sexualized approach. It’s hit or miss, depending on the scene; but certainly creative and unusual. George MacKay is like lightning striking gasoline as Ned Kelly. His adrenalized lead performance fueled by a stellar supporting cast.
Ned Kelly (George MacKay) writes to his unborn child during the gang’s murderous crime spree. He wants his story told in his own words. The film flashbacks to his troubled life as a poor twelve-year-old (Orlando Schwerdt) in colonial Victoria. Ned’s mother, Ellen (Essie Davis), sold homemade liquor and herself to a stream of British policemen. Sergeant O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam) delights in mocking Ned’s father’s crossdressing, then being serviced by his mother.
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After an incident tears the family apart, Ellen pushes Ned into the clutches of a lethal bushranger. Harry Power (Russell Crowe) kills and steals from their British oppressors. Years later, a grown Ned makes his way home to the spartan bush. His mother has taken a much younger lover (Marlon Williams); who steals horses with Ned’s brothers. The Kelly family soon runs afoul of a new constable (Nicholas Hoult). He offers clemency for certain favors with the Kelly women. Ned finally reaches a breaking point. He ignites a bloody uprising against British rule.
True History of the Kelly Gang states its intentions in the opening credits. This is an edgy, bleak and fantastical account of Ned Kelly’s life. The film is not a rote adaptation of the novel by Booker Prize winner Peter Carey. Audiences have previously seen Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger play the part in humdrum historical biographies. Justin Kurzel (Assassin’s Creed, Macbeth) takes significant dramatic license. His Ned Kelly is a sinewy, homoerotic firebrand. The violence is visceral with blood pouring like black ink. We are front and center as Ned’s mother fellates her clients. Kurzel uses frenetic camera movement, pulsating strobe lighting, and gritty close-ups to paint a lurid setting.
I can appreciate the director’s bold vision, but had issues with the plot structure. Characters come and go without resolution. Ned’s life is portrayed as a series of frantic vignettes. There’s a lot of intensity without substance. The interplay between the actors is compelling, but I felt dropped into every scene. Kurzel needed to shore up his exposition at critical points. True History of the Kelly Gang feels fractured.
George MacKay carries the film with an intense and magnetic screen presence. Ned Kelly is a different animal from his breakout performance as Corporal Schofield in 1917. The quiet and austere war hero is unrecognizable as the mullet-wearing, punk ethos of Ned Kelly. Both roles are physically extreme. MacKay looks effortless as a lost soul returning to a prostitute mother, and a savage raider gunning down enemies in a black dress. His turn as Ned Kelly is damned impressive.
True History of the Kelly Gang deserves merit for being different. The scattershot narrative and strobe effects frankly lost me at times. But I was always drawn back by the solid performances. George MacKay’s stock as a lead actor continues to rise. He has tremendous versatility and range. True History of the Kelly Gang is a production of Porchlight Films, Daybreak Pictures, and Film Victoria. It will be available April 24th on demand from IFC Films.
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Film critic, raconteur, praying for dolphins to grow thumbs and do better.