The True History of the Kelly Gang (2019)

In The True History of the Kelly Gang Justin Kurzel memorably reimagines the Australian legend in the searing, burning landscapes of Peter Carey’s award-winning novel.

The Tin Man of Oz

by Alexa Dalby

The True History of the Kelly Gang

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Adapted from Peter Carey’s Man Booker-winning 2000 novel, The True History of the Kelly Gang is anything but, as Ned Kelly’s voiceover warns at the start. Kelly is portrayed as someone who’s determined to tell his own story in his own vernacular and he’s often shown writing it. But is he the author of his own destiny?

The film begins with an aerial shot of a red-dressed figure on horseback galloping through the bush and there are many stunning shots – the snowy peaks of the lawless land, the gang lined up in their bespoke metal helmets, and, most of all, the dramatically flame-lit showdown as lines of police advance like abstract shapes in the darkness.

It’s about how the child grew into the man. And how the man became a popular icon. As an impressionable boy (Orlando Schwerdt), Kelly grew up in a poverty-stricken, thieving family that’s portrayed as violently dysfunctional, ruled by a powerful matriarch (Essie Davis). Their shack in the outback outside Melbourne is vulnerable to human predators of all kinds. Apprenticed by his mother to bushranger Harry Power (an unscrupulous, heavily bearded Russell Crowe, clearly so revelling in his senior-outlaw character that you can almost smell him), Kelly as a very young man (George MacKay, one of the leads in award-winning 1917) gets started on his career.

Carey’s and the film’s version of Kelly’s life shows him as a principled, almost reluctant lawbreaker, who develops almost accidentally into a freedom fighter against the repressive British colonialist rule, personified here when he’s a boy by the priapic local sergeant (Charlie Hunnam) and later, as Kelly’s fame grew, by the suave, handsome, duplicitous public-school regional commandant Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult). As well as this interpretation, the film introduces an almost (not quite openly acknowledged) nude, homo-erotic frisson between Fitzpatrick and Kelly in a tactfully shot nude scene at a local brothel, where Kelly fatefully falls in love with childlike Mary (Thomasin McKenzie), and although the cross-dressing of the gang is historically accurate, allegedly a ploy to confuse their pursuers, but hinting here at something more sexual.

The film’s brooding menace and brutal beauty create a post-modern picture of an Australian ‘hero’: there are violence and psychological insights a-plenty into the toxic influences that created and possibly now subvert a legend.

Kurzel’s earlier films were 2011’s true-crime story The Snowtown Murders and 2015’s cut-to-the-bone Macbeth and 2016’s tortured Assassin’s Creed. In previous incarnations, Ned Kelly has been romanticised in representations by starry personas such as a Heath Ledger and Mick Jagger.

The True History of the Kelly Gang screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 28 February 2020 in the UK>.

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