Image Credit: IFC Films
Director: Justin Kurzel
Starring: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Russell Crowe
Running time : 2h 4mins
Rating : 18
At the opening of True History of the Kelly Gang the audience is faced with a provocative declaration: ‘Nothing you’re about to see is true’. All these words except the last then fade away, and we see the title: ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’. This seemingly flagrant contradiction will go on to form the essence of the film. It is not a film which is concerned with presenting us with the ‘truth’ in a biographical, history-book sense. The ‘truth’ which the director Justin Kurzel is reaching for is that of the symbolic and emotional weight carried by this iconic figure who looms so large in the Australian self-perception: the 19th century outlaw Ned Kelly.
Kurzel’s film is itself based on Peter Carey’s Booker Prize winning 2000 novel True Story of the Kelly Gang, and follows Ned Kelly on his journey in three chapters, from ‘Boy’ to ‘Man’ to ‘Monitor’; AKA police-killing bushranger, outlaw and gang leader. These three chapters each have a very distinct feel. The first sets up Kelly’s unrelentingly grim childhood living in an outback hovel with his sex-worker mother and alcoholic, unstable father, where they are relentlessly tormented and exploited by the evil Geordie, Sergeant O’Neil. On a side note, as a native of Newcastle-upon-Tyne myself, I always welcome hearing the much underrepresented Geordie accent on film, but alas, why must it always belong to dim-witted bullies and thugs?
Anyway, to return to the matter at hand, the second chapter details Kelly’s gradual, reluctant turn against society as a result of his family’s fresh victimisation at the hands of yet another British colonial soldier, Constable Fitzpatrick, played with supreme villainy by Nicholas Hoult, unfortunately at times to slightly cartoonish effect. The third chapter, undoubtedly the most hallucinogenic in tone, shows the Kelly gang’s short-lived but intense reign of violence and insanity in the Australian outback.
A term that is being frequently used to describe this film is ‘punk rock’ or ‘rock and roll’. This certainly applies to the ‘Man’ and ‘Monitor’ sections, with their swaggering, bombastic quality clear in everything to their snarling guitar soundtracks to their magnificently nightmarish strobe-light sequences. These are so intense that the cinema doors bore signs which essentially said, ‘Do not, I repeat do NOT watch this film if you suffer from light-sensitive epilepsy’. However, the film’s chief flaw is probably its unevenness of tone. The opening ‘Boy’ chapter, while it very effectively establishes Kelly’s brutal background, feels somewhat at odds with the altogether more flamboyant storytelling that is to follow. I could not help but feel that the film didn’t really hit its stride until the first chapter was over.
However, once True History of the Kelly Gang gets going, it really goes. Cinematographer Ari Wegner’s use of visuals is consistently arresting and original. The Australian landscape is conjured in frequent dizzying drone shots of horseback riders travelling through the vast and unforgiving bush and desert, a stark reminder that the convicts and colonisers at the heart of the film are imposing their vision of nationhood on a land that is utterly untameable and, ultimately, not theirs.
Furthermore, the final two chapters, especially in scenes of conflict, are pervaded with a heightened, nightmarishly surreal air. For example, in the aforementioned strobe-light sequences; and in Kelly’s iconic bizarre homemade armour, (which was also brilliantly rendered by Sidney Nolan in his 1946-7 series of paintings) which resembles more than anything an upside down bucket with a hole cut out for the eyes. George MacKay’s marvellously physical performance as Ned Kelly adds to the sense of strangeness. Our introduction to the adult Kelly is the sight of him bending his lithe, lanky body backwards into an arch like a contortionist, a foretaste of the unpredictable madness that is to come.
Ultimately, as it defiantly states at the beginning, this is not a film about objective truth, this is a film about feeling, and especially the powerful and conflicting feelings regarding Ned Kelly that lie at the heart of Australian culture. Kurzel understands that it is not whether Kelly was in fact an anti-establishment hero or a violent thug that is important, it is why Australians have felt compelled to tell his story, in a variety of forms, since his death in 1880. He uses the (not strictly) true history of the Kelly Gang to explore the depths of Australia’s self-perception and identity. In this sense, it is reminiscent of the Australian film par excellence, Wake in Fright from 1971, of which Kurzel is a self-professed fan. Both explore the strain of anti-authority and macho culture that lie deep in the Australian legend, and neither shy away from the unspoken homoeroticism often embedded in the hyper-masculine.
True History of the Kelly Gang is not a perfect film. It is uneven and the British soldiers that spark Kelly’s reign of outlawry are little more than thinly drawn cartoonish villains. However, it manages to capture the sense of a nation continually in the process of building its own identity, and a history which will not be wrestled into submission. This is a history that cannot be tamed, and this often exhilarating film delights in letting it off the leash completely.
Editor's Note: This film was screened at City Screen York