All that we are and all that we truly leave behind are the stories we weave in life. If only we could all be our own storytellers, we’d be able to set some records straight by the time our light has faded. More often than not, the best we can hope for, is to have made a big enough impact that there can be no doubt as to who we are and what we did. The True History of the Kelly Gang may not really be a true story, but it is a story worth telling. So for that reason, Ned Kelly can rest easy.
Director Justin Kurzel and scribe Shaun Grant have created a haunting, uncomfortable yet mesmerisingly watchable portrait of Australia’s notorious 19th century outlaw Ned Kelly. It boasts an impressively eclectic cast featuring George MacKay, Russel Crowe, Charlie Hunnam, Essie Davis and Nicholas Hoult. Some of the performances are admittedly a little stronger than the others and some have their story cut well short of where I would have liked. But it’s not their story, it’s Ned Kelly’s. That’s the biggest nail to drive home by the time the film ends. Everyone has their stories to tell. Indeed, we see many characters doing just that throughout the film. Compulsively chronicling their personal passage of time in weather-beaten journals in the hopes that someday someone might read and understand. Ned is doing just that. This is his story, we are watching his telling and history will decide how he is remembered.
We all know the saying that history is written by the victor. But it’s more accurate to say history is written by the oppressor. More accurate still, when it comes to this film, to say it is written by the coloniser. Because that’s what we have here. An oppressed people in Australia who are used and abused by captains and authorities. Their abuse of power equating the abuse of the coloniser and the portrayal of the outlaw is the portrayal of the oppressed. Beware the line! Does this all seem a little heavy and weird? It is… But in a really good way!
The entire affair is split into three acts labelled Boy/Man/Monitor. ‘Boy’ chronicles the early years of Ned Kelly as he faces the realities of growing up under his mother’s overwhelming gaze. His mother is Lady Macbeth-like, archetypal queen of the family, grooming her boy to become the man of the house. This is where Crowe and Hunnam’s characters are introduced to us, both explosive in their own influential and long-lasting ways. ‘Man’ slows the film down a bit, following Ned as he returns to his family after years separated. He finds that things aren’t quite as they were before, but then neither is he. ‘Monitor’ culminates with all the punk-rock tinged edginess that has been simmering away so far. The entire film bellows out in this final act with an epic shootout that is half epilepsy-inducing and half dreamlike. Sound is utilised brilliantly particularly in this final portion, whether it be bullets bouncing off iron or the chilling snap and creak of the hangman’s rope. Strobe lighting is also used to absolute manic effect. I’ve never seen a climax quite so bewildering because of it. Again, that’s a good thing!
The film really shines at journey’s beginning and end. Orlando Schwerdt is earnest and believable in the early chapter as the young Ned Kelly. It was a shame to have to leave him in the past, with so much of his story and his interactions with Crowe and Hunnam still resonating. Nicholas Hoult must, I'm afraid, bear much of the responsibility for the baggy middle section. His character is no doubt written to be an unlikable prick, but Hoult plays him too cartoonishly. This caricature-like performance is at odds with what the rest of the cast are doing and it sticks out unnaturally in an otherwise tense and moody film. The scenarios he finds himself in border on the obscene for me - I’m thinking particularly of an interrogation scene which was just deeply unpleasant to sit through. By the end all is forgiven, it’s testament to the wonderful direction and the incredible performance from George MacKay. He has managed to channel Kelly’s evolution from scared little boy into a fearless warrior and you don’t doubt he’s both, even for a second.
There’s much to help shape the odd, confusing and strange world Kelly inhibits. Whether it be the use of cross-dressing to baffle enemies (“crazy is scary, they fear what they don’t understand”) or the awful scene of a baby held at gun point. There is no doubt the film is meant to provoke a reaction that can be both sympathetic yet horrific at the same time. Yes, there were moments I could have done without, particularly the tried and tested howling like pack animals, shirt-off, posturing which is so common place in these outlaw gang films. But if that’s who the man was, that's who the man was. There’s ultimately much more to like and be entranced by, than there is to feel irritated and bored by. But as with all stories, they either resonate with you or they don’t. They ring true or they ring hollow. The only thing that you can be sure of is that The True History of The Kelly Gang will be one you’ll never forget.