The real Ned Kelly once said that “the darkest life may have a bright side.” This sentiment may be true, but we can’t really say the same for the new Australian western True History of the Kelly Gang, at least when it comes to the line between fact and fiction. This is the latest film featuring the real-life exploits of Ned Kelly, an infamous Australian outlaw whose story has been told many times, including on the big screen in the 1906 silent film The Story of the Kelly Gang, which also happens to be the world’s first feature-length film.
That legacy is important to recognize because to many Americans, Ned Kelly isn’t the household name he is in Australia. In fact, he’s something of a polarizing myth overseas, with some films like 2003’s Ned Kelly glorifying his life as a Robin Hood type figure starring the dashing Heath Ledger. In contrast, True History of the Kelly Gang eschews the established historical record of Ned’s life in favor of an artistically freeform retelling. The film even opens with the refreshingly honest parameter that what you are about to witness is more or less a lie (to be fair, though, virtually all films manage to fit this description).
What True History does accurately depict, however, is the soul of Ned Kelly’s story and why it rings true so many years later, without resorting to the fluffy gloss of Hollywood dictating the narrative. This is the third film directed by Justin Kurzel, whose 2015 adaptation of Macbeth won him a good deal of acclaim, including a nomination for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. But his immediate follow-up film, Assassin’s Creed, proved to be a colossal misstep, despite his recasting of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard from his version of Macbeth.
Now, four years later, Kurzel returns with a new cast Guy Ritchie would likely envy, directing Shaun Grant’s screenplay adapted from Peter Carey’s novel of the same name. Despite all of these hands in the production, Kurzel certainly puts his own fingerprints on the film’s eclectic style, though fans of Lady Macbeth and In Fabric might catch cinematographer Ari Wegner flexing her particular flair with a brutal impression of the unforgiving Australian wilderness governed by complicated and thoroughly toxic men.
The film mostly serves as an extended origin story of Ned Kelly’s early life before going full tilt into the stranger-than-fiction misadventures these adaptations typically jump into as quickly as they can. We first see young Ned played by Orlando Schwerdt, whose deteriorating relationship with his father Red, played by Ben Corbett, is already about to reach its inevitable boiling point. Due to his thieving past, Red’s family was sent from Ireland to Australia to work a doomed farm for the English.
And all throughout Ned’s upbringing, many new father figures enter and sometimes violently exit his life in order to placate the vacuum left behind by his father, including the obstinate Sergeant O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam) and experienced bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe), who in this film is a far more capable and in many cases antagonistic presence compared to his traditional depiction. He’s also the first character in this film to reveal its true punk rock apathy.
No matter how many men try to shape Ned into the dangerous murderer history has long known him for, the one constant is his mother, Ellen (Essie Davis), a sex worker who grooms Ned to be their family’s breadwinner even before her husband implodes under the pressure. Eventually, Ned grows into a man, now played by George MacKay in his finest role yet, tossing away the clichés of Ned Kelly’s legacy in favor of a more raw and relevant portrayal that at times is framed as divinely inspired.
If you’re going to redo the Ned Kelly story yet again, it’s fitting to infuse it with new character and purpose, and True History does this by ostensibly rewriting history. Here, Ned isn’t the stereotypical “man’s man” or “bad boy” type who does morally dubious things but is ultimately redeemable for his heart of gold. The film posits that this oral history is itself a fantasy. No, Ned was pushed into his misdeeds by a cruel and unjust system, and the takeaway from his story is one of tragedy and brokenness, not something to be celebrated or postured for one’s own political gain.
This is played to its fullest extent through Ned’s homoerotic relationships, including his closest confidant Joe (Sean Keenan), drawn as a Jesus in Ned’s heart who acts as both conscience and symbolic martyr. And Nicholas Hoult as Constable Fitzpatrick is in many ways Ned’s vision of Lucifer, an orderly but ultimately bored cretin who exercises power through fear and intimidation. The inclusion of Thomasin McKenzie as the mother named “Mary” further expands the Biblical connotations, though beyond that her role isn’t as precisely obvious.
The film willfully ignores even the most enticing details of Ned’s life, including the decision to truncate the most viscerally exciting chapter of his fame and cunning, but this only makes these final patchwork scenes all the more ethereal and spellbinding. When Ned finally dons his “Iron Man” armor to enact his well-known frenzy against an onslaught of police, it doesn’t exactly match the anachronistic punk rock spirit the soundtrack employs, at least not in how films typically devise the blending of music and action to be cathartic and superficially enjoyable.
Instead, this scene embodies how this particular music allows for true expression of the human spirit at its most desperate, and how it can create the picture of a possessed, supernatural man who will be remembered forever, love or hate him. But in the end, he’s still just a sad, broken man, as well as a victim of society. At one point, Ned’s true weakness is finally revealed with little-to-no fanfare, though it’s clearly hinted in the opening scene. His desire to be known, and for others to grasp the truth of his story. In the long line of films that approach Ned Kelly as a folk hero worth saving, True History at last presents an alternative tale that truly puts you in this troubled man’s blood-soaked boots. As Ned would (perhaps) say, “Such is life.”
True History of the Kelly Gang is now available to rent on Video On Demand services, such as Prime Video or Google Play.