True History of the Kelly Gang – Film Review
by Frank L.
Director: Justin Kurzel
Writers: Shaun Grant (screenplay by), Peter Carey (based on the novel by)
Stars: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult
The film is based on the Booker prize-winning novel by Peter Carey. The film is a work of fiction and begins with the statement that “nothing you are about to see is true”. That stands in contrast to the opening words where the hero Ned Kelly is writing his story so that his son will know the truth about him. Ned Kelly is an Australian iconic figure from the nineteenth century and myth and reality have long been intertwined in relation to him. Therefore, it is probably best to watch this “true history” and not worry much about the veracity of its contents which fits nicely with the opening statement.
The film is divided into three parts entitled “Boy”, “Man” and “Monitor”. In “Boy” Ned Kelly is played by Orlando Schwerdt. The dominant figure in his childhood is his Irish mother Ellen (Essie Davis) who tells him “you grow up and show the world”. His ineffectual Irish father does not count for much in his upbringing in the outback but the brutal and fearsome figure of Harry Power (Russell Crowe) does. The chapter “Man” has George McKay playing Ned. Kurzel does not represent Kelly as bearded and battle-scarred as is normally the case but clean-shaven and into cross-dressing. However, he retains from his childhood a loathing of the British and their so-called forces of law and order, which are personified by a Sergeant O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam) and Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult). The final part entitled “Monitor” is an orgy of violence as the Kelly Gang go into action. It is blood-curdling.
The camera work is impressive throughout. The Outback is seen as a harsh place to grow up in and it is entirely understandable that its inhabitants are rough at more than just the edges. The tough nature of the landscape is enhanced by a score which is thumping and unyielding.
What makes the film arresting is the complex mix of a colonial existence at the edge of the British empire interlaced with a sexuality which is very different from that which was supposed to exist anywhere. As depicted here the Kelly Gang were outlaws in more ways than one. This is a challenging film where the third part fits uneasily with what precedes it but it shows Ned Kelly as a man of complexity and not just an outlaw.