Justin Kurzel brings Peter Carey’s novel True History of the Kelly Gang to the big screen with an adapted screenplay by Shaun Grant. In tackling the life story of notorious Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, Kurzel does so with a mighty aesthetic punch and brings a punky, chaotic energy to its interpretation of themes of masculinity and colonialism. Progressing towards its final act the sharpness of its storytelling grows chaotic relying too heavily on excessive over-stylised violence.
The film is split into three acts – the first focussed on Kelly’s boyhood. the middle his early adulthood, and the final, his status as an anarchic outlaw. Opening by exploring grimy, violent outback life and Kelly’s obsessive, passionate mother (an excellent Essie Davis) and confused relationship with his father, True History of the Kelly Gangsoon goes on to explore the young Ned Kelly becoming the man at the head of his rag-tag family. Ari Wegner’s impressive cinematography captures the stark and sparse outback locations with an otherworldly strangeness – making the perfect setting for this rebellious and chaotic narrative to unfold upon. The woozy setting showcases the outback as a dangerous playground that would plant the seeds for Kelly’s anarchic future.
We follow Kelly’s hazy outback path from the arrival of highwayman stepfather-like figure Harry Power (a gleeful Russell Crowe) who attempts to thrust Kelly from boyhood to manhood, before the narrative progresses to focus on the now-adult Ned and he and his family’s relationship with Nicholas Hoult’s lecherous British constable. With Hoult’s domineering demeanour and disruptive influence over Kelly and his family’s life, Kurzel’s film lightly touches on the damaging effect of British colonialism on Australia – with Kelly and his brood representing the rebellious Australian outlaw spirit fighting against the corruption and undue influence of the established colonialist force.
Intriguing outlooks on masculinity come throughout the story – with the grown Ned Kelly (George MacKay) being introduced in a bare-knuckle, blood-soaked fistfight with gorilla like physical posturing, yet this aggressive masculinity is flipped on its head numerous times. This is a film that revels in disrupting established ideas of masculinity and sexuality, the anti-authoratitive spirit seen in the Kelly Gang’s wearing of dresses (a rouse to scare the enemy and acknowledgement of Kelly’s father’s transvestism), the film’s fascination with the perfect male form (Charlie Hunnam’s continually sexualised Sergeant O’Neill, Nicholas Hoult’s sexually ambiguous British Constable, and obviously Mackay’s bulked-up physique) fills the film with an outlaw spirit that feels compelled to challenge societal norms of sexuality, identity and masculinity.
Pairing these themes of the damaging effect of colonialism and the challenge of masculine identity, with sharp, grimy yet poignant cinematography gives True History of the Kelly Gang a scrappy but powerful feel – yet the sharpness of these themes feels belittled by a climax that opts for over-stylised violence. A Peckinpah style shootout shot with pulsating neon strobing, drawn out for much of the film’s conclusion is a jarring, someone derivative ending to a film that had impressed throughout its first two acts.
For details on screenings of True History of the Kelly Gang, check here.