History is full of figures who have fought institutionalised oppression by breaking laws, and even taking lives only to become legends of folklore. Whether they be Dick Turpin or Jesse James, those who target the very foundations of a countries inequality. Often find themselves raised onto pedestals mixing truth with fantasy long after their death. In Australia, Ned Kelly and The Kelly Gang, have become a part of the countries turbulent formation. Reflecting both the anger and oppression that swirled around the birth of Australia under colonial rule. And the rebellion and anger downtrodden communities and individuals could only attempt to wield in the face of Empire.
However, despite the folklore surrounding Ned’s short-lived life; his last breath taken at the tender age of 25. The story of Ned and The Kelly Gang has also sparked heated debate in Australia, on whether someone who murdered and robbed others should ever be celebrated. And alongside this, film has equally struggled to disentangle the Ned Kelly story. Often bouncing between portraying a people’s champion and a violent outlaw. With both the 1970 Ned Kelly staring Mick Jagger and the Heath Ledger 2003 film of the same name, struggling to define a complicated character surrounded by legend.
However, with Justin Kurzel’s new film ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’, based on the award winning novel of the same name. We finally receive a character study rooted in the dirt, grim, abuse and mental volatility of a damaged young man. With a film that never knowingly taking sides on the social debates surrounding Ned Kelly and his gang. While equally reflecting the brutality of a newly emerging country under colonial rule. Often echoing the horror and lawlessness of Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, especially within the first half of the story.
It is important to state at this point, that like all films or stories based on the life of Kelly. The word true is to be taken lightly, something made clear in the films opening scenes. And while we find familiar ground retraced within the films narrative based on the known facts. This is a film that also subverts many of the traditional stories surrounding Ned and his gang. Lacing its narrative with the hormonal energy of youthful rebellion. While equally embracing the spirit of 70s and early 80s punk culture in challenging patriarchy and establishment norms.
But this is a film that truly shines with a nuanced exploration of masculinity. An exploration that dissects the traditional western style male hero. While equally embodying the anger and the entrapment of oppression and poverty. As we follow Ned from his childhood experiences of violence and control through to his eventual adult rebellion. His own life pre-determined by a toxic mix of oppression, lack of education and violence. While his sexuality and hormonal energy bounce from desire and companionship to brotherhood and belonging. As his relationships with others burn with suppressed desire and social expectations of masculine power and control. While the historical cross dressing behaviours of the Kelly gang, interface with a need to escape the enforced social expectations of masculinity surrounding them.
This complex and brave interpretation only works due to performances that embrace the fever like energy and volatility of the screenplay. From the hurt, anger and confusion of the young Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) through to the defiant yet wounded young adult he becomes (George MacKay). Both actors give performances full of texture, soul and pain. While the isolation, debauchery and despotic power of colonial rule is beautifully reflected in differing shades of control. From the opportunistic sexually malevolent Sergeant O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam), who regularly takes advantage of Ned’s mother (Essie Davis). Through to the erratic and power hungry game playing of Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult). While Russell Crowe’s brief but powerful role as the notorious Harry Power foreshadows the eventual path Ned takes in his own adult life.
Meanwhile the power of each performance is wrapped in the stark but beautiful cinematography of Ari Wegner. Who manages to capture rebellion and oppression in landscapes that scream with both vibrant energy and captivity in equal measure. While Jed Kurzel’s score laces impending disaster and a soft yet haunting eeriness.
True History of the Kelly Gang is not perfect, faltering 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 defies the boundaries of the Ned Kelly story. But also shakes off the shackles of the typical Victorian period piece. Delivering a film where you can almost smell the sweat, grime and testosterone of the characters. While also reflecting poignant moments of fear, loss and uncontrollable energy as Ned and his gang near their final hours. All of them mere lost boys in a sea of faltering bravery and socially defined toxic masculinity. As the claws of the social system that created them edge closer and closer to creating young and misunderstood martyrs.
Director: Justin Kurzel