Review- True History of the Kelly Gang
“Know that I shall tell no lie, let me burn in hell should I speak false”
True History of the Kelly Gang tells the semi-true story of the bushranger/outlaw Ned Kelly (George McKay as an adult and Orlando Schwerdt as a boy) as he transitions from boy to man.
The story is told from the real-life writings of Kelly who is sold by his mother Ellen Kelly (Essie Davies) to the infamous bushranger Harry Powell (Russell Crowe) introducing Ned Kelly to violence at a young age. Kelly tries to lead an honest life, however, he is soon pulled back into crime, when his mother is arrested. He fights against the English police force to free his mother, which ends in a visceral and bloody finale, where Kelly's fortress is attacked.
George McKay is a true angry rebel as Ned Kelly, and Orlando Schwerdt has a breakout role as a younger Ned Kelly. Crowe is fine, but not in the film for too long. Nicholas Hoult is also great as Constable Fitzpatrick, who pursues Kelly. On one hand, he is sensitive and humorous, but when pushed to his limit, he is shown to have a sadistic side that makes even his violent peers disgusted.
The standout performance in the film is from Essie Davies as Kelly’s mother. Ellen Kelly is not a typical comforting and loving mother, but rather a hateful and toxic person. She loves her son but has an intense hatred of the English, as she is exploited by them. An example of her nature is when Ned Kelly is offered education, but his mother refuses it because she does not want to be away from her son, yet she sells him to a bushranger just so he can become one.
As to be expected from director Justin Kurzel, the directing is gritty and uncompromising. One of the first images is Ned Kelly riding on horseback in his dress, where soon he is surrounded by darkness. Kelly is trapped in a cruel world where there is seemingly no escape, and darkness becomes a recurring theme in the film.
As beautiful as the cinematography is, the montages with Kelly narrating can drag on, where it feels like you’re watching a glorified trailer and not an actual film. There are still many highlights, such as the final shootout at Kelly’s fortress. The scene feels like a nightmare where the viewer is attacked with bright and flashing lights, and fire becoming natural light in the overbearing darkness. Kelly turns into the terrified boy he used to be, but he puts on his armour to fight the police force, becoming more than a man, but a myth.
Due to the dark lighting of the scene, it is a terrifying sequence (think of Game of Thrones but better).
In two instances, the film breaks from the original soundtrack of the film to modern punk rock music. In most period films, modern music would break the atmosphere of a film, but it fits within the period of this film. The first instance is when Kelly is contorting his body in front of the British flag. Unfortunately, the image of the flag has no great meaning. Kelly being raised as an Irish man in a country ruled by English could have been an excellent study on racial identity, but this feels like an idea that is never delved into.
The film is full of ideas about race and homoerotism but is not polished enough to be great. This is made worse by the fact that punk rock is only implemented on two occasions whereas it could’ve created more interesting parallels to modern society, were it used more.
The best way to describe the film is a wasted opportunity. Kelly is a ticking timebomb but is still portrayed as a sensitive kid that finds it hard to murder, so when he snaps in the manner in which he does, it comes off as forced. His inane scribblings on the walls of his fortress and his outbursts don’t fit within the context of his character arc, as was shown in the first half of the film. Yes, it is a film about a man slowly going insane but using mental illness to excuse the film’s incoherent and incomplete storytelling is lazy. As mentioned earlier, Kelly’s mother denies his chance of having an education, which, is another incomplete story that goes nowhere.
The best part of the film is its self-awareness. The film is based on the book of the same name, but it knows that it is historically inaccurate. The True History of the Kelly Gang, starts with the quote: “nothing you see in this film is true...” The choice is up to the viewer whether or not Kelly was a Robin Hood-type hero or just a murderous madman. Films in the past such as Mad Dog Morgan portray bushrangers as tragic heroes, and while Ned Kelly is a tragic character, it is not so black and white, as it is left more to interpretation as it plays with the myth of Kelly.
The film is vulgar, angsty and violent, just like Ned Kelly, and features many dazzling performances and sequences, but its frustrating storytelling keeps it from being great.