There are times during “The True History of the Kelly Gang” where director Justin Kurzel offers up wide shots of Australian wilderness. The shots vary in terms of their visual substance, but the underlying feeling is always the same: the place is, despite its vastness, confining. Australia is a trap; a prison; an inescapable, cruel, land, particularly for our anti-hero, Ned Kelly.
The movie states at the outset that this is not really the true story of the gang and while the statement seems intended to mean that some elements have been fictionalized, it would also be accurate to state that the movie isn’t really about the gang at all. No, Shaun Grant’s screenplay (which, in turn, is based on the novel by Peter Carey) focuses on Ned (George MacKay) himself, not the gang. At some point Ned does join up with his brother, Danny (Earl Cave); a friend, Joe (Sean Keenan); and Danny’s friend, Steve (Louis Hewison) and form this gang, but we see few of their exploits. The gang then turns into an army and we see even fewer of their exploits. Anyone looking for a highlight reel of Kelly Gang crimes will be sorely disappointed. Truthfully, anyone looking for a definitive idea of the scope of their crimes will be as well.
That said, someone watching to see if George MacKay, who was thoroughly compelling when the camera stayed on him in last year’s “single take” movie “1917,” is as compelling when the camera is allowed to cut away, will be pleased. MacKay’s Kelly is full of swagger and self-righteousness and a whole lot of doubt, and he is riveting.
“The True History of the Kelly Gang” is a movie vastly more concerned with the build-up up tension than its unwinding, and not just the build-up, the very start of it. We spend most of the time in the film seeing how Kelly grows from child to adult; how he goes from being brought into a life of crime to deciding to pursuing it on his own.
The first quarter fo the film or so gives the audience Ned as a child, played by Orlando Schwerdt. We see the various—and variously horrible—men in his life treat Ned with, at best, gross disrespect, and at worse outright abuse. Ned is taught to thieve and to kill and to treat others in horrific fashion. He is taught to look out only for himself and, maybe, his family, but he is also taught that family will betray you for very little.
It is during Ned’s youth that the movie uses some of its bigger name stars, for it is here with Charlie Hunnam and Russell Crowe appear. The former plays a police officer (Nicholas Hoult appears as an equally unscrupulous lawman in Kelly’s adult years) and the latter a scoundrel, but both educate Ned in what they would term the cold truth about our world and what it takes to get by, but which most would look at and call anything from grift to murder.
The biggest disappointment is not that the film doesn’t chronicle the growing misdeeds as an adult Ned rushes headlong towards his death, but rather that it lays the character flaws of Ned—lays his whole life of crime—squarely at the feet of his mother. She is a conniving and horrific character; one willing to sell her children to thieves, to pit them against one another, to spew venom or affection on them as best befits her goals in any given moment. Essie Davis is captivating in the part, but there is something disappointing in a film which looks at a murderer and thief, a person with a massive set of difficulties, and says, “you know what, it’s entirely his mother’s fault.” Yes, the men in his life teach him horrible things, but Ellen Kelly is the one who puts those men in his way.
What then is the truth of it all? What is the truth of Ned and of the movie and of the gang? Well, the movie is largely captivating. It is stylistic and the performances are engrossing. The Australia we see is one of both opulence and poverty, seemingly in close proximity to one another, but always it is confining and deadly. The tale is skewed towards Ned’s early progression down the road of villainy, and his descent into madness at the end overly quick, but there is a stripped away sense to it and a definite feel of Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde.” Some aspects feel too easy—Ned writes his story because Crowe’s Harry Power told him to keep a journal, but why did Ned decide that was right when he seems to have hated Harry and Harry’s lessons—but others hit one like a ton of bricks. There are no outright truths here, there are no definite answers, there are no easy explanations.
Perfect and clear and easy “The True History of the Kelly Gang” is not. Instead, it is an outstanding portrayal by both MacKay and Schwerdt. It is a look at how one man may have had a chance but too often at too many impressionable moments was led down a bad road until he started charging headlong down it. It is a stripped down, bloody and violent story which, like the land in which Ned lives, traps people. It is fascinating even when it is not informative, alive even when it is deadly, and caring even when its characters are not.
photo credit: IFC Films