James Jay Edwards

True History of the Kelly Gang Makes Folk Heroes Out of Villains

(True History of the Kelly Gang, IFC Films)

James Jay Edwards reviews True History of the Kelly Gang, a new movie about the Australian outlaw, bushranger, and gang leader Ned Kelly.

 

One of the first things that appears onscreen in True History of the Kelly Gang is the message “nothing you’re about to see is true.” While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, there are quite a few liberties taken with this version of the “true” story of legendary Australian bushranger Ned Kelly.

True History of the Kelly Gang follows pretty much the entire life story of Ned Kelly (George MacKay from 1917). It begins with his misspent childhood growing up in the Australian badlands. Under the tutelage of a rough bushranger named Harry Powers (Russell Crowe from Gladiator), Ned embraces his lineage as a fierce warrior, a “Son of Sieve.” He forms a gang of hoodlums who wreak havoc in the outback while keeping one step ahead of an unscrupulous lawman named Constable Fitzpatrick (Mad Max: Fury Road’s Nicholas Hoult).

 

(True History of the Kelly Gang, theatrical release poster, IFC Films)

Director Justin Kurzel (Assassin’s Creed, Macbeth) turned to his friend and sometime collaborator Shaun Grant (who wrote the screenplay for Kurzel’s The Snowtown Murders) to adapt the Peter Carey novel of the same name for the screen. Carey admittedly gave himself some leeway with the “true” part of True History of the Kelly Gang, and Grant’s script leans even harder into the myth-over-truth theme. The real Ned Kelly was essentially a terrorist, but one with an extensive network of sympathizers who was able to evade capture for years. The Ned Kelly in the movie is also a terrorist, but the audience becomes the sympathizer.

Kurzel is able to turn the ruthless criminal into an effective anti-hero, mainly by villainizing his adversary. Constable Fitzpatrick is portrayed as cunning and manipulative, a man out more for personal gain than he is for justice. He’s also a man who uses his position of authority to oppress his constituents, both the criminal and the law-abiding. So, everything that Kelly and his boys do for retaliation is justified. And an outlaw becomes a folk hero.

 

(True History of the Kelly Gang, IFC Films)

Kurzel also assembles a strong ensemble to support his folk hero. In addition to Crowe and Hoult, George MacKay is joined in the cast by Essie Davis (The Babadook) as Ned’s mother, Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace, Jojo Rabbit) as his love interest, and Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) as Harry Powers’ rival lawman. Singer Marlon Williams even pops in as one of Ned’s mother’s suitors … and to add some nifty musical numbers to the otherwise-grindhouse aesthetic of the film.

True History of the Kelly Gang isn’t as brutal as a movie about a gang of hooligans in the Australian outback could be, but it definitely has its disturbing moments. The movie features quite a bit of death and violence, with instances of everything from misogyny to animal abuse. It’s triggering, but not exploitative. None of the violence is especially graphic. The brutality comes from the ideas. It all just serves to illustrate how messed up these characters can get.

 

(True History of the Kelly Gang, IFC Films)

The violence’s lack of gore doesn’t take away from its impact. The movie, particularly its second half, is packed with chaotic and visceral gun fights that lead up to a climactic battle that is both tense and exhilarating. The imagery is haunting, but it all comes with a sense of humor as well. For example, Ned was famous for wearing homemade suits of armor during his raids. The metal humanoid forms of Ned and his gang are fearsome, but scenes of the guys testing their defenses by shooting at each other (and at themselves) disarms the viewer and reminds them that, at least in this story, these are the likable good guys.

History buffs should look elsewhere for their Ned Kelly fix. Like possibly towards a documentary. True History of the Kelly Gang amplifies and fictionalizes the story for entertainment’s sake. And that’s what grindhouse movies are all about.

 

 

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