True History of the Kelly Gang is now playing in cinemas nationwide.
History is full of figures who fought institutionalised oppression by breaking laws to become legends of folklore, from Dick Turpin to Jesse James. In Australia, Ned Kelly and the Kelly Gang have become a part of the country’s turbulent formation and social history. Ned Kelly’s story reflects the anger and oppression that swirled around the birth of a nation under colonial rule and the wrath of those communities and individuals held under the Empire’s boot. However, the first nation people of these countries are rarely mentioned in folklore, their existence all but wiped from colonial history.
Despite the countless stories surrounding Ned’s life and death at the tender age of 25, his story has also sparked heated debates in Australia. Here people have questioned whether a man who murdered and robbed others should be celebrated. Meanwhile, films have also struggled to disentangle Ned’s story, bouncing between portraying him as the people’s champion and a violent outlaw. Here Ned Kelly (1970), starring Mick Jagger and the 2003 film of the same name starring Heath Ledger, struggled to define the complicated character surrounding the legend. So how does Justin Kurzel’s new take fare?
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With Kurzel’s picture, we a given a character study rooted in dirt, grime and abuse. Here the volatility, trauma and anger of a damaged young man sit centre stage in a film that never knowingly takes sides on the social debates surrounding Ned Kelly and his gang. However, it is important to state that, like all films or stories based on the life of Kelly, the word true is to be taken lightly. One of the strengths of Kurzel’s movie comes from his subversion of the stories surrounding Ned and his gang as he weaves a tapestry of hormonal energy and youthful rebellion in an ocean of punk vibes. But True History of the Kelly Gang sings in its nuanced exploration of masculinity.
Here Kurzel dissects the traditional male hero of the western as we follow Ned from his childhood experiences of violence and control to his eventual adult rebellion – his destiny a pre-determined mix of oppression, poor education and violence. Meanwhile, his sexuality and hormonal energy bounce from rage to desire and a need for companionship and brotherhood. Here the historical cross-dressing behaviours of the Kelly gang are part of their social rebellion.
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From the hurt, anger and confusion of the young Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) to the defiant yet wounded young adult he becomes (George MacKay), performances are full of texture, soul and pain. Meanwhile, the isolation, debauchery and despotic power of colonial rule are beautifully reflected in differing shades of control, from the opportunistic and sexually malevolent Sergeant O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam)to the erratic and power-hungry Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult).
True History of the Kelly Gang does falter slightly midway through as it connects the life of young Ned with his older self. However, despite this, Justin Kurzel creates a truly unforgettable film that not only transcends the boundaries of the Ned Kelly story but defies the restrictions of the classic Victorian drama. The result is a film where you can almost smell the sweat, grime and testosterone through fear, loss and uncontrollable hormonal energy.
Director: Justin Kurzel
Cast: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Thomasin McKenzie, Sean Keenan, Earl Cave, Marlon Williams, Louis Hewison, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe