In many ways, the latest work from director Justin Kurzel (whose last two films, Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed were collaborations with Michael Fassbender) is an equally brutal if male-centric companion piece to last year’s The Nightingale. True History of the Kelly Gang is set roughly 40 years later, but in the same Australian territory of Van Diemen’s Land (the original name used by most Europeans for the island of Tasmania). At that time, the British military was still the primary law enforcement and Irish immigrants were treated as second-class citizens. True History of the Kelly Gang centers on the legendary outlaw/folk hero Ned Kelly (George Mackay of 1917), his family, and the circumstances that led to the creation of a bloodthirsty small army that he used to disrupt the polite British society that held his people down.
We first meet Ned as a young boy (played by Orlando Schwerdt), whose powerful mother, Ellen (Essie Davis, star of The Babadook), regularly demeans Ned’s disappointing father as a failure to the family. She is forced to provide sexual favors to the British sergeant, O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam), to keep the law away from their homestead. But when the father turns up dead, O’Neil starts visiting more, forcing Ellen to sell off Ned to the notorious criminal Harry Power (an almost unrecognizable Russell Crowe) to teach her son the rough ways of the world and give him a fighting chance at survival when he gets older.
True History of the Kelly Gang begins with a title card saying that everything we’re about to see is false, followed immediately by a narration from Kelly (more of a letter to his son) that swears it’s all true, and this is the wonderful paradox of the film. Director Kurzel (working from Peter Carey’s novel) has decided that the legend is the more important story—or at least the more cinematic one—than the real one, realizing that some truth will seep into the mythology of Ned Kelly, but not preoccupying himself with separating fact and fiction. The resulting film is frenetic, slightly shocking and even terrifying at times, especially when the elder Kelly and his gang begin the bloodletting.
When the film jumps to MacKay’s portrayal of Kelly, he’s a lean, mean, bare-knuckle boxing machine, making his way in the world with his best friend Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan) by his side. He eventually makes his way back to his family’s shack in the Australian badlands to confront his mother about her selling him off as a boy. She defends her actions and says that he wouldn’t be half the man he’s turned into without her actions, which isn’t a lie. Ned is reunited with his siblings, some of whom have taken to wearing dresses when they commit crimes, they say to instill fear in their intended victims. After all, if they think you’re crazy, they won’t fight back and will be more terrified of you. And before long, Ned is embracing his Irish heritage, including that he descends from a line of warriors known as the Sons of Sieve, which becomes his battle cry.
Around this time, Ned also befriends the local British constable in the nearby town, Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), and falls in love with Mary Hearn (Thomasin McKenzie from Jojo Rabbit), a prostitute with a child, all of which sets into motion a series of emotional conflicts that pit Ned’s Irish pride with his people’s long history of taking it from the British. Before long, the anarchist Kelly Gang becomes a source of terror and even death to their oppressors.
True History of the Kelly Gang is an impressive, revolutionary piece of folklore, caked in filth and baked under the Australian sun. You can almost smell this movie, and I promise you, it is not a pleasant aroma. The question about Ned Kelly has always been about whether he was crazy or justified in his bloodshed, and the answer is perhaps a bit of both. But it’s certainly one that the filmmakers don’t attempt to answer. As extraordinary as MacKay’s performance was—both physically and emotionally—in 1917, he’s almost doubled down on that here. And the scenes between him and Davis as his mother are as impressive as any of the film’s action sequences. They are explosive together, as they somehow manage to butt heads and convey their blood-deep love and respect for one another. The film may be too abrasive and aggressive for some, but it’s one of the few films I’ve seen during this time of streaming-only viewing that I truly wish I’d been able to see on the big screen just once.
The film is now available on most digital platforms and VOD.
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