This review was co-written with Anna Swanson
True History of the Kelly Gang is a fresh take on a tale as old as film itself. Nineteenth-century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly isn’t only the subject of multiple biopics, he’s the subject of the first-ever feature film. The Story of the Kelly Gang, released in 1906, clocks in at over an hour, a runtime that was unprecedented upon its release. In the century since, Kelly has been depicted regularly on screen, his legend coming to the silver screen every 20 years or so as if he were a specifically cinematic Australian Pennywise.
To embark on another adaptation takes guts, a fresh perspective, and a firm commitment to one’s vision. In his take on the tale, Australian director Justin Kurzel has all of this and then some. True History of the Kelly Gang is a breathtaking and visceral feat of filmmaking that avoids the hum-drum malaise of many biopics and period pieces.
Kurzel largely eschews historical fidelity in favor of capturing the true spirit of his protagonist’s mythology making for a film that’s brazen and steeped in homoeroticism. It’s not only an original take on the story, but a shocking and startling accomplishment in filmmaking that can only be described as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as directed by Paul Verhoeven. Kelly, in part thanks to his cinematic depictions, has become more of a folk hero than a real man. Kurzel uses this understanding to both barrel full speed ahead with an engine running on cinematic chaos and to peel back the outlandish qualities of his narrative to expose the raw truth: that behind all that mythology is a scared, reckless boy.
The first third of the film is devoted to Kelly’s adolescent years, with Orlando Schwerdt turning in a spectacular performance as young Ned Kelly, capturing the outlaw’s early flaws and sensitivities with a marked subtlety. After his father dies, young Ned’s mother takes a number of suitors, including Harry Power (yes, his real name and yes, of course, played by Russell Crowe) and Sergeant O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam), a dirtbag for the ages.
In a delightful casting flourish, Kurzel’s real-life wife Essie Davis (The Babadook) plays Ellen Kelly, Ned’s over-protective, opportunistic mother, whose parenting style is best described as “stop hitting yourself.” As far as Crowe is concerned, the student has become the master, having fully made a wine-chugging, ham-hock on-screen transformation into Oliver Reed. He must now take an apprentice. We nominate Hunnam, who delights in his short screen time as the corrupt and chaotic Sergeant O’Neil.
But, in a constellation of choice supporting performances, the shining star is Nicholas Hoult. As the English Constable Fitzpatrick, Hoult is part colonial gentlemen, part Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, and all chaos. He holds a baby at gunpoint. He is allergic to clothes. He’s one evil animal sidekick away from being a Disney villain. Hoult comes in for the film’s latter two thirds, serving as the adult Kelly’s primary opposition. It takes a special kind of evil to pull off wearing sock garters and nothing else.
George MacKay (Captain Fantastic, Pride) tops the marquee of devilish dingdongs as the adult Kelly. Once all grown up, he is vengeful and monstrous, a live-wire dynamo with something to prove. The film is less concerned with the details of Kelly’s crimes, so much as gaining some kind of expressionistic sympathy with what made the mad-man tick. The result is an instinct-driven, kinetic, and deliciously grueling spectacle; a riotous punk-rock portrait of an imploding anti-hero.
It appears that Kurzel has learned from the mistakes of his much-maligned Assassin’s Creed. He’s returned to the mud-splattered grit of Macbeth, another film beautifully rife with dirty men spewing venomous words and bodily fluids all over one another. Unfolding anachronistically, Kelly Gang’s tongue-in-cheek approach to history is used to its full advantage. Kurzel mythologizes his outlaw hero as if he were the lead singer of a rock group, with Kelly’s band of bushranging doofuses doing battle against a background of strobe lights and a punkish score, courtesy of the director’s brother and frequent collaborator, Jed Kurzel.
The film’s violence is visceral, but with its characters all having their time to shine, Kurzel strikes a fine balance between gleeful, bloody indulgence and the emotional weight of such violent acts. If we lacked a connection to The Gang, the brutality inflicted on them would be mindless, violent fodder even more akin to the experience of a video game than Assassin’s Creed. Instead, the film has enough heart and sympathy for its characters to create the depth required for us to feel for them when they go down guns blazing.
Fierce, flamboyant, and fantastically fun, Kelly Gang is as Australian Gothic as they come, with one foot knee-dip in historical grit, and the other steeped in a rough Western poiesis. That said, it is difficult to imagine Kelly Gang striking commercial success. Its emotional intensity, operatic undercurrent, and overlong narrative are sure to alienate COWARDS. But for those with a penchant for crazy, Kelly Gang is ample in rewards. To put it bluntly: Kelly Gang is fucking gorgeous. Ari Wegner’s cinematography is ghostly and granular, capturing vast landscapes of lush brush, barren forests, and forbidding trails. Likewise, production designer Karen Murphy delivers a world that feels both authentic and mystical; a tactile outback with riders in the night, suits of armor, and gun-toting ghosts.
True History of the Kelly Gang is an old story, but it’s told here with such a vicious glee and disregard for its predecessors that it easily stands on its own two feet. It’s a visually stunning western-tinged Oz opera about angry, beautiful men doing crimes — what’s not to love? Nothing scares men like crazy. But for some of us: crazy is just what the doctor ordered.