Recent Australian films have a knack of falling into two distinct categories. The first is picturesque dramedies that really only amount tourism ads with a story. The second is gritty and violent critiques of our past, generally intensely justified ones. The True History of the Kelly Gang ultimately rests in the latter group but is so absurd and trivial that it attempts to make a third group which sees history mutilated into a cinematic playground.
It sounds scathing to call a film absurd and trivial, but that is not my intention. The team of the director Justin Kurzel and his screenwriter Shaun Grant have combined to make something genuinely intriguing as they embrace the falsehoods they tell to maximum effect. They make it very clear in every facet of the film that none of this bar the most basic points ever happened, which creates quite a unique atmosphere. Unlike most historical fiction, this isn’t an epic. Instead, The True History of the Kelly Gang is almost a satire.
We follow the most notable Kelly of all, Ned (George MacKay & Orlando Schwerdt) from his tumultuous youth to his harrowing final days. It’s a tale of how the sins of the mother and father destroy the son with his mother Ellen (Essie Davis) being the chief emotional manipulator of his demise. Family is everything to the Kelly’s, and his fate intertwines with them in the most tragic of ways. As Ned grows up, he attempts to leave his family behind him and chase something more significant, but when he returns, he sets in motion events which destroy his family and put him on the run.
Plenty of the narrative revolves around crossdressing, but it never develops a correlation to sexuality, rather it links to insanity. There is a discourse about how sex as a man is better in a dress, and a significant character gets his proper introduction wearing stockings and nothing else as he converses with Ned, it’s all incredibly strange. Yet the grittiness of the tale remains steadfast, and the Australian frontier is harsh as ever being spectacularly filmed by the cinematographer Ari Wegner. This generates a stark clash of themes, which works to the films credit seeing as how the film works best as a balancing act of tone. Remarkably this mash-up manages to work far better than one would assume.
However, as a piece of work with something to say The True History of The Kelly Gang falls a staggeringly short. There isn’t any insight into Kelly, his madness, or the period; which struggles to come to life on screen outside of the apparent fact that life was difficult. Drive is ultimately what the film lacks above anything else, what was the purpose of this endeavour into the avant-garde? The fact I cannot provide an answer to that question is the biggest issue of all. Yes, it ends as a critique of a man who is wrongly considered a legend and attempts to destroy his mythical nature. But, Australia has already heard this message, few still hold Ned in the same regard they once did, it’s rare he’ll even be mentioned in most places. This considered I’m not sure a film distorting someone so long gone, who had no grand impact on the world and what little he did fast fading, needed to be made, just read the book.
The performances are strong all round with rising star George MacKay bringing the perfect kind of crazy to the role. Russell Crowes small appearance is also enjoyable, and his encounters with Charlie Hunnam are both disturbing and hilarious. Those aside there is one man who steals the show, Nicholas Hoult as Constable Fitzpatrick who is just simply engrossingly absurd and cruel. The True History of The Kelly Gang is at its best when he’s on the screen, which is unfortunately not enough.
The True History of The Kelly Gang is a wonderfully gift-wrapped present that excites you even to look at but lets you down when you open it and find nothing.
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