true history of the kelly gang review

Ned Kelly may be the main subject of Justin Kurzel‘s True History of the Kelly Gang, but the real star of the film is grime. Grime, grime and more grime cover nearly every frame of this loud, rip-roaring punk-rock outlaw film. The premise: everything you’ve heard about infamous Australian outlaw Edward “Ned” Kelly is wrong, and Ned himself is going to set the story straight. Of course, the irony is that the “true” story isn’t true at all – there’s even an opening title card to remind us that “nothing we’re about to see is true.”

This schizophrenic approach blankets the film as a whole (along with all that grime), as Kurzel smashes and crashes his way through one wild scene after another. The end result is a bit of a mess, but what an entertaining mess it is. You may not learn a damn thing about the real Ned Kelly from this movie, but you sure as shit won’t be bored.

Kelly is likely to be an obscure figure to American audiences, but he’s something of a folk hero in his native Australia (Yahoo Serious even made a movie about him!). As a result, any of the nuances of the story Kurzel is telling here might be lost on U.S. audiences, and you shouldn’t expect anything like a history lesson here to fill in the gaps. This results in a nagging question: just what is the point? What is True History of the Kelly Gang trying to tell us? That Ned Kelly wasn’t a bad guy? No, that can’t be it, because he kind of was, based on what we see here. But this is Ned’s story, and in Ned’s mind, he’s not a villain, he’s an oppressed soul – an Irish descendant in Australia tormented by the English.

The English as a whole are represented by two distinct characters – one from Ned’s childhood, the other from his adult life. The childhood enemy is Sergeant O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam), a lawman fond of soliciting Ned’s mother Ellen (Essie Davis, incredible here) for sex and who may or may not have played a part in the death of Ned’s father. The other, during Ned’s adult days, is dandy police constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), who starts out as something of a friend to Ned before becoming an arch-nemesis.

Kurzel, who directed the visually stunning Macbeth, the unbearably brutal Snowtown, and the already-forgotten Assassin’s Creed movie, has a knack for creating visual splendor set against the harshest of backdrops, and he continues that here, rendering the mucky, murky, bloody world Ned inhabits. Ned is almost always framed against some visually eye-popping backdrop or meticulously staged tableau. At the same time, Kurzel peppers in loud, blaring punk-rock music to fully accentuate Ned’s anarchistic outlook. It gets so on the nose at times that I was half expecting a scene where Ned spray paints an anarchy symbol on a Union Jack flag.

In his youth, young Ned falls under the tutelage of bushranger Harry Power, played by Russell Crowe with seductive, slovenly charm. Crowe looks more than a little like Orson Welles’ Fallstaff from Chimes at Midnight, with Ned as his Prince Hal. The film comes to life whenever Crowe is on screen, playing Harry as a rootin’-tootin’ drunk prone to brutality and harsh wisdom. Crowe is so good, in fact, that when he exits the film early, True History of the Kelly Gang never gets its groove back. Screw Ned Kelly – I’d rather be watching a movie about Crowe’s Harry Power.

Adult Ned (George MacKay) tries to live the straight-and-narrow, but his fate is to be a rebel, and soon he and his brothers are forming a gang to kick some English ass. Their actions are encouraged by their mother Ellen, a kind of Lady Macbeth figure who fully expects her children to be willing to die for her. Ned also strikes up a romance with a prostitute named Mary, played by Leave No Trace breakout Thomasin McKenzie in a sadly underutilized role. Mary is soon expecting Ned’s child, and it’s worth pointing out that of all the liberties True History takes, this is the biggest – there was no Mary, and definitely no child, in the real Ned’s life. Their presence here serves to humanize Ned a bit, and give him someone to explain himself to – the entire story is meant to be a letter being penned to his unborn daughter.

By the time True History of the Kelly Gang draws to its big, bloody climax, don’t be surprised if you find yourself as exhausted as Ned seems. Kurzel goes for broke in the film’s only real action set-piece – a massive, monstrous shoot-out filled with fire and brimstone, and gunmen decked out in neon-glowing robes like ghosts from Las Vegas. It’s all sound and fury, but I fear it might be signifying nothing. And yet, the experience of True History of the Kelly Gang lingers, because Kurzel’s loud and angry approach burns itself into your brain, and leaves you walking out of the theater feeling like you’re covered in a thick layer of all that damn grime.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer for /Film. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net