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New Release Review - TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG

True History of the Kelly Gang review
The story of infamous Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Justin Kurzel

Starring: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Thomasin McKenzie, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe

true history of the kelly gang poster




After diversions in Britain and Hollywood with Macbeth and Assassin's Creed, director Justin Kurzel returns home to Australia to deliver another examination of a brutal chapter in the history of the Land of Oz. An unflinching portrayal of that country's most infamous outlaw, True History of the Kelly Gang often resembles a down under companion to another work by an antipodean filmmaker, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Both movies present a heavily romanticised figure in a warts and all portrayal that gives their antiheroes' most ardent defenders pause for thought.

Kurzel's film opens with a disclaimer that tells us that none of what follows is true. That statement is itself a fib, as while the movie is adapted from Peter Carey's 2000 novel, which heavily fictionalised Kelly's story, much of what we're presented with did indeed occur, and certain real details which seem like works of fiction are presented here for the first time on screen.


True History of the Kelly Gang review


The story of Ned Kelly has been told on screen countless times already, and was even the subject of the world's first ever feature film in 1906's The Story of the Kelly Gang, so what is left to do with this figure? Quite a bit it turns out. Kurzel presents dramatic aspects previously left unexplored, such as the Kelly gang's habit of dressing in women's frocks to instil fear in their victims and the suggestion that Kelly may have become "prison gay" during his incarceration as a young man. As played by 1917's George MacKay, Kelly's appearance is modelled on Australia's 'Sharpie' youth culture of the '70s, with a "business in the front, party at the back" haircut and high waisted trousers. Fictional characters are transplanted from Carey's novel, chiefly Mary, a young prostitute played by Thomasin McKenzie, who provides Kelly his heterosexual love interest.

We first see Kelly as a 12-year-old (Orlando Schwerdt) living with his mother, Ellen (Kurzel's wife and The Babadook star Essie Davis), a foul-mouthed Irish prostitute, and ex-convict father, Red (Gentle Ben Corbett). With his wife bringing the sole income into the ramshackle household, having sex with other men as he waits outside, and with his young son proving more useful than himself, Red feels increasingly emasculated, sneaking away when he can to ride his horse while dressed in an extravagant red frock. When Red takes the blame for a cow stolen by young Ned, he is taken back to prison, and you get the feeling he's happy to return.

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With his father absent, Ned is taken under the wing of Harry Power (Russell Crowe), a violent bushwhacker with his eye on the boy's mother. When Power's attempt to initiate Kelly into his outlaw ways by killing a policeman who similarly seeks to possess Ellen backfires, young Ned is arrested and imprisoned for his teenage years. Returning home on release, Ned finds his mother is set to wed George King (Marlon Williams), a pompous American horse thief barely older than himself.


True History of the Kelly Gang review


Ned is determined to go straight, but he's led back to violence when his male pride is wounded, learning that the infant child of Mary, whom he plans to wed, was fathered by George, a revelation delivered with relish by local constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), a professional shit-stirrer if ever there were one. Seething with rage, Ned scrawls up a manifesto, determining to go to war with the British, whom he blames for all his troubles. A rampage of killing and hostage-taking promptly ensues.

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If this setup sounds vaguely familiar, then you've probably seen Fred Schepisi's 1978 Australian New Wave classic The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. In that movie a young aborigine similarly vows to fight back against his white oppressors, and Kurzel borrows a pivotal interaction with an English teacher from Schepisi's landmark drama. Both films take us to a place where we develop an empathy with their angry young men, only to then complicate things by having their protagonists commit unconscionable acts of violence. In Schepisi's film, Jimmie massacres women and children, while in Kurzel's we see Kelly gun down policemen in a cowardly sneak attack. The difference is that we can understand if not condone Jimmie's acts and his anger towards the white race, whereas with Kelly, it becomes increasingly clear that he's co-opting Irish nationalism as little more than an excuse to justify his bloodlust.

As you might expect from what is essentially an Australian western, True History of the Kelly Gang boasts striking use of its landscape. Kurzel and cinematographer Ari Wegner give the outback the look of a scorched, forsaken earth. Such is its post-apocalyptic appearance, you wouldn't be surprised if a certain Mad Max showed up.


True History of the Kelly Gang review


It's perhaps no surprise that Ned Kelly was the first figure to become the subject of a feature film all those years ago, as his story offers iconography that Kurzel pounces on here - the cross-dressing and the crudely fashioned steel armour, the latter a 19th century progenitor of the sophisticated bank robbers of Michael Mann's Heat. For the climactic shootout, Kurzel adds an expressionistic touch of epilepsy inducing strobe lighting, which feels like a nod to the stylised work of another Australian filmmaker, Razorback's Russell Mulcahy.

Printing the facts while deconstructing the legend, Kurzel turns Kelly's story into one as grimly confrontational as his highly disturbing 2011 debut Snowtown. Like that movie, it features a protagonist who exploits prejudice in order to feed his own selfish rage. Things are more complex here, as Kelly's anti-British feelings are certainly well earned, but Kurzel's portrayal leaves you feeling that if the British didn't exist, a man like Kelly would have to invent them.

True History of the Kelly Gang is in UK/ROI cinemas February 28th.


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