True History of the Kelly Gang (18) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Justin Kurzel, UK/France/Australia, 2019,125 mins

Cast:  George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Russell Crowe

Review by Carol Allen

The film describes itself as being inspired by Peter Carey’s Booker prize winning novel and admits in an opening statement that this is not the true history of the Kelly gang.  

Nor is this latest film version in any way a straightforward telling of what is known of the life of Australia’s legendary outlaw.  And you are going to have to wait till right near the end before you see the gang in that iconic homemade armour and bucket helmet with slits for eyeholes.

Like director Justin Kurzel’s film version of Macbeth, this is full of really powerful visual images, interesting ideas and connections but is also more than somewhat baffling and doesn’t really hang together coherently.

There are though some very good things in it, one of which is Russell Crowe who appears early in the film as bush ranger Harry Power, who educates young Ned in the arts of robbery and murder.  Crowe creates a full blooded and totally believable characterisation.  At one point Harry warns Ned to “make sure you’re the author of your own story because the English will always take it and fuck it up” and the idea of Ned writing his own story, which history has turned into a different legend, is successfully incorporated into the film.

There’s also an admirable performance from Essie Davies as Ned’s fiercely loving, fiercely protective, fiercely possessive mother. She is also fiercely sexy.  It is her complicated relationship with her son Ned, which is at the centre of the film.

Also impressive is Orlando Schwerdt as the young Ned.  The film jumps about a bit while telling the story of Ned’s boyhood, but it is at least comprehensible. The setting for the family homestead or rather shack, surrounded by bare, leafless trees is theatrically very effective and Charlie Hunnam as the local copper gives Ned a good reason not to like policemen very much.

It’s when we get to grown up Ned, played by George Mackay, that things start to get extra tricky.  Up until now adult Ned has just been present in voice over.  Mackay gets an attention grabbing entrance, taking part in a brutal, bare knuckle fight but from then on the story telling goes rather off kilter.  Mackay is a good actor and does his best but a lot of the time he looks as baffled as some of the audience are going to be.  Nicholas Hoult as the English Constable Fitzpatrick, initially Ned’s friend but then his antagonist, has a distinct air of European loucheness about him, as together he and Ned, the son of an Irish convict, play out the centuries old Irish/English animosity.

There is also an intriguing homo-erotic element in the story of adult Ned, in terms of the love/hate relationship between Ned and Fitzpatrick plus Ned’s close friendship with his new best friend Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan).  And then there’s the men in frocks aspect.  Early in the film a bit of cross dressing in the family is established, when young Ned finds his somewhat flaky dad’s secret red dressing up frock hidden in the back garden.  But then later on for no discernible reason grown up Ned’s gang once formed go in for cross dressing even more enthusiastically than the horse rustling they’re best known for.  There’s one lacy number which looks particularly fetching on one of the Kelly brothers. who has luscious long brunette locks.

There is a passing mention of this dressing up in some versions of the Kelly legend but Carey upped it in his novel and Kurzel has made it a major feature of the last part of the movie.   I fear your old fashioned Aussie is going to think he’s turned Australia’s Robin Hood and his merry men into “a load of bloody poofters, mate”!  Though what does it matter so long as he loves his mother?