True History of the Kelly Gang

It is a surprising bit of cinema history that the first full length feature film was not made in Hollywood or even Europe, but Australia, with 1906’s “The Story of the Kelly Gang.” Ned Kelly was a bush ranger, an inadvertent horse thief and cop killer who hated the English for the oppression of both his Irish convict grandfather and father. He pops up in a new movie every decade or so but none so strange as this adaptation of Peter Carey’s “True History of the Kelly Gang.”

Laura's Review: B-

Director Justin Kurzel ("Macbeth," "Assassin's Creed") along with his “Snowtown” screenwriter Shaun Grant have refashioned the legend of Australia’s most notorious outlaw like a cross between Todd Haynes’s “Velvet Goldmine” and Gerald Kargl’s stylish 1983 Austrian serial killer movie “Angst.” Painting Ned Kelly (George MacKay, "1917") as a bisexual cross dresser in love with his mother (“The Babadook’s” Essie Davis) is certainly an unusual approach, but it is telling that the film works best during its first half, chronicling the events which formed the young Ned (Orlando Schwerdt).

We first meet the young lad (unlike Kelly, blonde and always clean shaven here) watching his mother Ellen servicing Sergeant O'Neil (Charlie Hunnam) in a shed, payment for his ignoring her moonshine business. Afterwards, O’Neil informs the young boy that he’s seen the father (Ben Corbett) who called him away from the peephole wearing a dress in town. Ned is horrified, later finding the bright red gown and burning it.

But it is tough-as-nails Ellen who rules this roost and a rude awakening for the ever-loyal Ned that she has sold him to one of her lovers, Harry Power (Russell Crowe), who’s led them in an entertaining sing-along lewdly denouncing constables, to train as a bush ranger. Ned is horrified by Harry’s hair trigger violence, eventually escaping to head back home, but not before inflicting a flesh wound on O’Neil, the officer’s privates lassoed by Power.

A cut to the Union Jack accompanied by punk rock on the soundtrack announces Ned is now a man played by a wiry, wide eyed MacKay looking like Bauhaus’s Peter Murphy with Iggy Pop’s body. He’s the entertainment in the Governor’s mansion, a boxing match attended by his next adversary, the fey Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), whose wooing of Ned’s sister Kate (Josephine Blazier) begets all sorts of trouble. It is Fitzpatrick who brings Ned to the brothel where he will meet the love of his life, Mary Hearn (Thomasin McKenzie, "Jojo Rabbit"), but he also embraces Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan) and the cross dressing of brother Dan (Earl Cave, son of Nick).

The latter part of the film represents a backlash against the aggressive masculinity of Power and O’Neil, but it also often seems more preoccupied with costume and makeup than authenticity (gang member Steve Hart (Louis Hewison) is reportedly true inspiration for the wearing of dresses). The man writing his own history here as a Son of Sieve, an Irish rebel, would famously go down in iconic armor (referenced in such films as Rob Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects”), vastly outnumbered, before being hung for his crimes, his famous last words ‘Such is life.’ Kurzel stages the massacre first as fantasy before segueing into “Bonnie and Clyde” reality, iron-clad gang members cut down like Monty Python’s Black Knight.

“True History of the Kelly Gang” favors the folk hero version of Ned Kelly, but while George MacKay makes for a striking figure, it is Essie Davis’s brutally demanding matriarch-as-cult-leader who makes the strongest impression.

Robin's Review: C+

Ned Kelly (George MacKay) was probably, in the country’s early days, the most internationally notorious of Australia’s rouge’s gallery of criminals. His story, like those of American folk hero outlaws Jesse James and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is mostly based on legend. That may still be the case with the “True History of the Kelly Gang.”

Director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant adapt the same-named Peter Carey novel and give their own interpretation on the legend of the Kelly Gang during their reign of terror in the Australian bush during the late 1800s.

The filmmakers divide Ned’s life into two distinct parts. The first nearly half of “True History” is about 12-year old Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) and the hard life he and his family endured. His father, Red, Irish-born, was a convict sent to the Australian penal colonies and, when freed settled in country, but had constant run-ins with the law. Upon his death, Ned’s mother, Ellen (Essie Davis in the film’s best performance), gives the boy to the infamous bushranger (translates to “outlaw” in the US and “highwayman” in England) Harry Power (Russell Crowe) for on-the-job training in crime.

The story shifts to the older Ned and his life as a bushranger and cop-killer which will lead to his untimely end at the gallows. While the first part gave shrift to its several characters, the latter half concentrates mainly on the crime boss in the making. I get the feeling that this part of the story is designed to show that the birth of a killer was caused by the mistreatment, on many levels, by those in charge, particularly the law enforcers.

While George MacKay is the focus of the film’s second half. Essie Davis is the real star, giving the most defined and complex character in the film. Russell Crowe, though, carves himself a fully developed character, in a brief time, his portrayal of Harry Powers. The members of the Kelly Gang, like his brother Dan (Earl Cave, son of Nick), are two-dimensional at best.

You get the details of the short, violent life of Ned Kelly in “True History…” and a couple of strong performances, but I never felt anything like empathy, or even sympathy, for Ned or those around him – except, maybe, for mom.