True History of the Kelly Gang (2020)

★★★½

Justin Kurzel’s Aussie neo-Western True History of the Kelly Gang feels destined for the gunslinging gallows of its Yankee counterparts. And yet, in trading the American frontier for barren branch graveyards and facts largely for fiction, this stylized folk tale is patched together by the same needles that weave myths. Blood and barrels are indeed a part of this recounting, but True History mourns more the fates of the oppressed – physically and psychologically – than it does the bodies of its characters.

Broken into three chapters and presented as a corrective final letter from father to daughter (i.e. Kelly’s word against that of the incoming press’), the movie shudders Ned Kelly’s outlaw romantics with both roguish pretense and punk poetry. In both cases, it helps that for the past 150 years, Kelly’s legacy has been granted a post-mortal quill by passing generations. Surged by images of him donning dresses and homemade suits of armor during his battles with authorities, the leap to folklore was naturally small. But now, the role-blasting efforts attributed to the outlaw seize a new energy and purpose onscreen.

New not only for the modern-day amendments and aesthetics to the story (homosexual curiosity and confliction run rampant in Ned’s young adulthood but remain pleasantly unquestioned by those around him) but because this isn’t the first time Ned Kelly’s ruffian life has been portrayed on the big screen. Though both Heath Ledger and Mick Jagger have had their go at the Aussie outlaw, True History, by focusing more on Kelly’s bandit-molding inspirations, takes the more daring approach to the biopic.

Adapted by screenwriter Shaun Grant from the novel by Peter Carey, the film’s pressing visuals form a fever dream around Ned’s caste restrictions. Having grown up in the Australia flatlands (the barbaric half-trees scattered across the landscape feel straight out of World War I), he is battered, betrayed, and exploited by one local tyrant after the other: police sergeants designed to serve (Charlie Hunnam at first, then Nicholas Hoult as the primary antagonist) and adults supposed to protect (a husky, hairy, gunslinging Russell Crowe).

Orland Schwerdt, who plays Ned during his younger years, successfully binds Kelly’s foundation of aspirations and realizations. The pent-up aggression and resilience is then carried by 1917’s George MacKay, whose performance sometimes turns method as those aged emotions diffuse outwards. Though the latter and the film have a tough time galloping around the final bend, True History’s serpent figurine, the Kelly matriarch Ellen (Essie Davis, the director’s wife), is wholly fantastic. In displaying heart, strength, and deception, her performance is unpredictable, frightening and fascinating.

Unfortunately, in spending so much time with these fashioning pillars, Grant’s screenplay glosses over details of Kelly’s life that would seem otherwise inescapable for a biopic (the members of “The Kelly Army,” for instance, are many, instant, and nameless). But this film, which holds as great a responsibility to the truth as a Shakespeare history, doesn’t let the facts get in the way of the story.

by Luke Parker

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