True History of the Kelly Gang

true_history_of_the_kelly_gang_ver3STARS2True History of the Kelly Gang begins with some text that reads: “Nothing you’re about to see is true.”  Yeah, so the title is made irrelevant within the first minute.  This western is based upon Peter Carey’s critically acclaimed 2000 novel about the very real Ned Kelly and his band of followers.  The admittedly honest warning ostensibly gives the author carte blanche to fabricate whatever he chooses.  I’m no expert on the biography of this man, but I was aware that certain facts were being distorted and other events completely invented.  I try not to fault movies for this.  I take even so-called “factual” accounts with a grain of salt, so I was ready to evaluate the drama’s ability to simply tell a compelling story. Unfortunately, even this imaginary memoir can only entertain in fits and starts.

I figure I should start with one undisputed fact about the man. “Ned Kelly (December 1854 – 11 November 1880) was an Australian bushranger, outlaw, gang leader and convicted police murderer.” — Wikipedia.  Actor George MacKay (Captain Fantastic, 1917) conveys the role with impressive intensity.  However, he doesn’t appear until later.  It’s in the beginning when we are introduced to Ned as a child where this saga truly captivates.  Special acknowledgment to casting directors Nikki Barrett and Des Hamilton for finding newcomer Orlando Schwerdt.  The talented actor gives the outlaw life as a youngster.  Schwerdt suggests his older counterpart in both appearance and temperament.  It’s here where we begin to understand Ned’s environment.  His ex-con father Red Kelly (Gentle Ben Corbett ) dies in prison after being jailed for poaching.  Mother Ellen (Essie Davis) succumbs to granting sexual favors to provide for her family.  The best scenes feature little Ned talking with a portly and grizzled Harry Power (Russell Crowe) a bushranger who becomes sort of a father figure to the boy.

Ned Kelly is one of those mythical outlaws like Jesse James or Billy the Kid — both lionized and vilified at various points.  Australia in the 19th century was a rough country populated by brutal individuals.  The screenplay upholds the idea that violence was ubiquitous, but it doesn’t give us anyone to root for.  George MacKay embodies the central personality as a product of his surroundings.  He exudes raw physicality, but he’s a man without a strong moral compass.  I’ll give the account some credit in that it doesn’t try to glorify a violent, unhinged criminal as some mythic hero.  However, this is entertainment and so it would be nice to have someone to champion.  Even the seemingly charming but corrupt Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) is a detestable heel of a man.

Given the bleak atmosphere, I suspect adapting Peter Carey’s book would test any filmmaker.  The novel inserts random bits of fantasy that the script dutifully recreates.  Most memorably is the Sons of Sieve, a relentless army descended from Irish rebels who wear dresses to frighten their oppressors.  Wearing evening gowns into battle is to make their opponents think they are mad, but it introduces a lot of confusion (and questions) for the audience as well.  Such developments are symptomatic of the entire production.  Director Justin Kurzel’s movies (The Snowtown Murders, Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed) have been polarizing and this one is no different.  The quest to make a great Ned Kelly film has been ongoing ever since the release of the 1906 silent The Story of the Kelly Gang.  There have been so many others including portrayals in 1970 and 2003 by Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger respectively.  This is the 10th version.  Sadly the search continues.

2 Responses to “True History of the Kelly Gang”

  1. Too violent and a little trashy for me. Did not enjoy this, a couple of good performances though, mostly by the kid. 2 stars

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