Ned Kelly to many was the last scream of a dying breed, an outlaw in a country quickly becoming civilised by industrialisation. The incoming train system connecting people and opportunities like never before. His actions, however, are largely unrecorded, shrouded in mystery and conjecture. The question became, was he doing the right thing for those that didn’t want to conform to a new world order or if he was a pest standing in the way of real, lasting change? Justin Kurzel’s film, based on the fictional novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey paints Ned and his world as desolate, untenable and foreign, but most of all, imagined. Despite stating right from the start that this is a world of absolute fiction, that knowledge doesn’t make this world anymore compelling or noteworthy. Ultimately it just makes what you see here unpleasantly gratuitous.
Telling a fabricated version of Kelly’s life from his time as a young boy to his descent into becoming the outlaw he was unavoidably destined to be. Pushed by the controlling presence of his mother Ellen (Essie Davis) and his need to protect his family, Ned (George MacKay) finds himself trapped not only in a changing world but between an orthodox life or one of rebellion.
Kurzel’s view of Kelly, and the lack of necessity for truth, quickly devolves into a folk story, one telling of a different kind of gangster. There is a disobedient heart to everything seen here, be it the way Ned and his kin approach their English oppressors or just simply in the choice of music to accompany his various run-ins with a society keen on extinguishing him. Full of outliers and characters unshackled by conventional restraints, Kurzel paints a bleak picture of what a world looks like without rules, without consequences.
Ned’s childhood home is situated in a burnt-out forest, a barren lifeless place where farming and anything close to productivity is useless. The set design, while well realised and dingy, plays to the notion that these people are driven to do horrible things,that the thought of normalcy is but a pipe dream. Yet a lingering doubt sits at the back of your head, the knowledge that half of these horrors are for effect, a story playing to an audience, one keen on the over the top idea of a man, not the man.
MacKay’s Ned is smart, in tune with the change taking place around him but also painfully damaged. He proves to be compelling as he maintains a sense of clarity but what feels like a cohesive story at first unravels as Ned does and while MacKay manages to inject some lucidity into proceedings, Kurzel loses the plot in a sequence of over the top hallucinatory scenes that build to an almost directionless ending. While a story of family loyalty amid changing times dominates an opening hour that hooks you in, the ending toys with the trust you have placed in Ned’s blood-soaked story.
A strong array of performances, especially from an unhinged Nicholas Hoult and a playfully barbarous Russell Crowe enliven Ned’s dreary existence with violence and twisted companionship but the moments that really claw at you, dragging you inside a story that often leaves you on the outside looking in, are thanks to Essie Davis. The unhealthy relationship Ned shares with his mother while disconcerting, uncomfortable and downright wrong feel like the one true touchstone in a film full of mistruths and over exaggerations.
As a family drama, True History of the Kelly Gang feels honest, unflinchingly so, but beyond that, it spreads a wide, often empty net. Part rebel-yell to a forgotten past, part satire of so-called ‘modern history’, Kuzel distorts his own vision by making his story about everything and nothing, lies and omissions, the fantasy surrounding Ned, not the things that really make him matter. Sure the subject material is inflammatory, a bold film for a post-punk era but this intentionally bastardised version of history feels like a well-constructed play, something well suited for the stage. The unbelievable proves just that and what should be heart-pounding, warm storytelling eventually just feels cold and dead, much like the land Ned hails from.