Every culture has their notorious outlaws, and in Australia, probably no such figure looms larger than bushranger Ned Kelly, who famously wore a suit made of bulletproof armor during his last standoff with local authorities. While at least 10 movies have already been made about Ned Kelly and his gang, most paint him as a heroic figure and symbol of the poor man standing up against oppression. Director Justin Kurzel veers in a completely different direction. Using unabashedly fictional source material (Shaun Grant, who worked with Kurzel on previous project Snowtown, adapted the screenplay from Peter Carey’s award-winning biographical fiction novel of the same title) and taking inspiration from Australian countercultural larrikin bands of the 1960s-1980s, this latest rendering of Ned Kelly and his gang pulses with punk-rock energy and a timeless feel. While this isn’t the Ned Kelly of the history books, it’s a fun ride worth taking.
As our tale begins, Kelly explains to the recipient of his chronicle (a fictional daughter) that he writes this history so that she will know him firsthand and because lies have a way of destroying a person from the inside, “may I burn in Hell if I speak false.” Kelly’s attention-grabbing narration, used sporadically throughout the saga, serves as a through line, leading the viewer on the chronology of our person of interest. Chapter cards etched in wood alert us of three main acts: boy, man, and, finally, the Monitor (a title signifying the aforementioned iron armor).
All of the known facts and key players in Ned’s life are explored and examined: his origin story of poverty, the green sash he received for saving a boy from drowning, the theft that doomed Ned’s father to prison, bushranging with Harry Power, his friendship with Joe Byrne, his short-lived boxing career, and the chain of events that led to his capture and eventual death. Mixed in with these documented facts of his life are parts that have been added for the sake of story. Here Ned Kelly has a soulmate and daughter, both of whom he adores; is depicted as having an undocumented Oedipal relationship with his mother; feels homoerotic tensions between himself and both Fitzpatrick and Byrne; and, perhaps the thing that really sets this tale apart from the rest, that he and his gang cross-dress when robbing and attacking their targets just to throw their foes off balance and to honor their father’s past as a “Son of Sieve.” The effect of this fusion between fact and embellishment is pure entertainment, the stuff of tall tales. It’s not Ned Kelly as he was, but as we wish he was.
George MacKay, who won great acclaim for his almost wordless performance as Lance Corporal Schofield in Sam Mendes’s 1917, goes a completely different direction in his role as Ned Kelly, bushranger supreme. With electric blue eyes, a lean muscular build, and a striking haircut inspired by the Sharpie subculture Kurzel wanted to emulate, MacKay lights up the screen with kinetic energy, pulsing with vitality, even in the few moments he rests. However, MacKay also plays Kelly as someone of vulnerability, who’s not really a hero or an outlaw. Here, we see a Ned Kelly that is fun, endearing, sympathetic, and quite misguided, whose biggest flaw is that he perhaps loved the wrong people, most notably his mother, too well.
While one would be hard pressed to find any performances to complain about in this “True History,” special recognition should be given to Essie Davis (The Babadook) as Ned Kelly’s mother, Ellen. Rather than a coddling, soothing mother figure, Irish-born Ellen Kelly runs her household like a queen bee, using fire and vinegar to bring out the tough “man of the house” she believes her son needs to be to survive. And just as the men in the story wear clothes that defy gender norms, using dresses as unexpected symbols of power, Ellen’s silhouette and energy bridges genders, wearing pants and styling her hair like Patti Smith, loose and wild. Truly, she’s a worthy mother to the charismatic Ned Kelly. Ellen does whatever it takes to survive, and she expects the same of her prodigy.
Likewise, Nicholas Hoult (Tolkien; The Favourite) as British Constable Fitzpatrick, the main antagonist of the tale, makes an impression. Looking far from the Fitzpatrick of traditional Kelly histories, this Fitzpatrick is humming with narcissism and insecurity. Knowing he can’t outman Ned Kelly with strength after witnessing one of his boxing matches, Fitzpatrick uses the other tools available to him (military position, political influence, and wealth) to target Ned and his family as people he can use as pawns. In Hoult’s performance, we can see a frustrated boy-man trying to feel important and powerful, and, like all good antagonists, he’s truly despicable.
While these three make the biggest impression, supporting performances by Russell Crowe (Gladiator) as Harry Power, Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) as Mary Hearn (the fictional mother of Kelly’s fictional child), Sean Keenan (Strangerland) as Joe Byrne, Earl Cave (The End of the ***ing World) as Dan Kelly, and angel-faced Orlando Schwerdt as young Ned Kelly all deserve nods.
The set pieces and locations selected sets the perfect bleak backdrop for this slice of 1870s Australia. The rugged landscapes filled with spidery trees and wild interrupted stretches of earth place viewers in a space where anything can happen. The ramshackle buildings that serve as shelters for Ned throughout his life (his childhood in Avenel, the hideout station used by Harry Power, and the Glenrowan Inn, site of his eventual apprehension), also capture the spirit of stalwart survival perfectly.
Kurzel and crew use a blend of devices that gives this story its punk-rock otherworldly feel. The opening shot of a lone rider, galloping fast on a horse, wearing a red flowing dress, with Ned Kelly’s powerful narration, immediately creates a mood. Then, there’s the chapter markings etched in wood that flash on screen — boy, man, and the Monitor. It’s a device used by theatrical productions and vaudeville shows of old and adds to the timeless, magical feel. In moments that change Ned’s course, a tonal shift occurs from realism to nightmarish and surreal. During the Stringybark Creek scene, during which Ned commits unprovoked murder, the camera swings wildly about, matching the frenzied energy of Ned’s choices. And during the Glenrowan Inn shoot out, strobe lighting and a black light are used to great effect, adopting techniques that are most often seen in horror movies.
The music by Jed Kurzel, brother of Justin, further matches the mood. Using a combination of string instruments and electronic music, the music strikes eerie chords that keep viewers expecting the worst. The music haunts, vibrates, drones, saws, and cajoles when it needs to, leading us through this gritty and disturbing tale. In contrast, the quartet of actors playing the Kelly Gang (Mackay, Keenan, Cave, and Hewison) were asked to unify as a team and take hold of the vibe — by forming a temporary punk rock band named Fleshlight. The group wrote two songs together that are included in the score and provide a fun tangent. The track “Everywhere,” greets us in the end credits and reminds us of the whimsical Kelly we met in the middle.
This biographical fiction film captivates with its performances, music, and cinematography ,and if they don’t already know about this “favorite son” of Oz, viewers will certainly find themselves hitting the internet search box to learn more about Ned Kelly. Only one thing felt lacking: the story could have been made stronger by offsetting the lows that Ned Kelly experienced with moments of celebration. Such high moments serve to clarify why doomed main characters keep going, no matter the barriers. Other than short moments of happiness he feels with his mom or with Mary at his side, Ned Kelly isn’t seen experiencing much joy or even peace. He has short-lived victories that don’t amount to much. As is, it’s difficult to understand his reasons for continuing to believe he can win, and although Mackay’s charisma keeps us centered and engaged, the story sorely needed some unabashed moments of celebration to keep us understanding why he continued on the path.
Nonetheless, The True History of the Kelly Gang is a triumph of Australian filmmaking and breathes new life into the Kelly Gang mythos.
Available on streaming and VOD April 24th, 2020.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.