REVIEW: True History of the Kelly Gang [2020]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 124 minutes
    Release Date: February 17th, 2020 (UK)
    Studio: Picturehouse Entertainment / IFC Films
    Director(s): Justin Kurzel
    Writer(s): Shaun Grant / Peter Carey (novel)

I know what it is to be raised on lies and silences.

Famed bushranger and Australian folk hero Ned Kelly (George MacKay) doesn’t want anyone else to tell his story because he knows how these things can be warped by hearsay and selective truths. Because he doesn’t know whether he’s going to survive the night, now might be the last chance to ensure his unborn son will learn what really happened during his brief time on Earth (twenty-five years). So Ned writes as he and his gang of men awaits a group of British policemen they’ve lured to their position for an ambush. He remembers the hardship, oppression, and deceit endured during each and every day he’s taken a breath. And we see him through those words as an intellectual who was wronged by family, the law, and society itself.

This sense of who Ned Kelly is remains for more than half of Justin Kurzel‘s film True History of the Kelly Gang. From the time we spend watching him in his youth (Orlando Schwerdt) until the moment he’s confronted with the opportunity to be the killer his cutthroat and determined mother (Essie Davis‘ Ellen) has always wanted him to become (she uses the word “survivor,” but that’s surely her intent), we recognize him as someone who’s desperate to run from a fate his heritage (displaced Irish brought to Australia) and social class (son of a “whore” in a family of thieves) have set in stone. I felt his pain and believed in his struggle to protect his blood without crossing the line everyone has been pushing him towards.

None of these events are actually true, however, being that screenwriter Shaun Grant has adapted Peter Carey‘s Booker Prize-winning novel of intentionally speculative and revisionist fiction, but I did hope the sentiments were since it’s easy to emphasize with someone whose life has been dictated by outside forces. Whether it’s witnessing the sexual exploitation of his mother by a local sergeant (Charlie Hunnam‘s O’Neil) while his father looks on or watching the cold-blooded psychopathy of the infamous Harry Power (Russell Crowe) first-hand as though it was a lesson in manhood, Ned never wavers in his abject disgust for despicable and immoral men. He yearns to be better than his name by finding solace in new friends (Sean Keenan‘s Joe Byrne) and unlikely alliances (Nicholas Hoult‘s British constable Fitzpatrick).

But then everything changes—along with my buy-in. I can’t say if the novel handles the transition better since I haven’t read it, but the shift from complex survivor Ned to crazed madman Ned arrives without warning. What’s more frustrating is that it makes sense. You can only be told who you are so many times despite every fiber of your being refuting the claim before embracing that projection as your only path forward. And if there was more time to coax this realization out (a large task considering the film is already over two hours), I may have felt sympathy for his plight. Because Grant and Kurzel aren’t afforded that luxury, however, we’re instead left despising Kelly just like he despised O’Neil, Power, and his late father.

This does the film no favors since it removes the one person we were pulling for within a cesspool of opportunism and outlaw vengeance. There had been a lot to like as far as Ned returning home a grown man to see his mother and brother (Earl Cave‘s Dan) firmly entrenched in the pocket of another unsavory man (Marlon Williams‘ charlatan George King). He sets his mind to fix things while also starting a new life. He cautiously befriends Fitzpatrick despite him being an Englishman throwing up red flags. He falls headlong into a relationship with a young mother and prostitute Mary Hearn (Thomasin McKenzie). And he tries to talk sense into Dan before he does something in which a jail sentence becomes a foregone conclusion.

Ned therefore falls into similar traps as he had before. He’s used and manipulated to the point where he finds himself holding yet another gun to another man’s head with the fire in his eyes to pull the trigger despite his heart having not yet been turned black. The potential to confront his mother about everything she’s done to put that gun in his hands again is ripe for the picking, but that’s not the goal here. There is a path that Carey still needed to take regardless of his liberties with the details and that was putting Ned in Glenrowan with ironclad armor to take on an entire police force. A switch needed to be flipped inside Kelly’s head to finally make him embrace his so-called nature.

This imperative fails narratively less because it’s born from a convenient plot subversion and more because of that subversion’s half-baked execution. I’ll give Carey the benefit of the doubt as a result and instead lay blame at Kurzel and Grant’s feet for their inability to make it feel real. This might not even have been a problem if the first hour or so wasn’t paced to perfection and authentically dramatic in its movements forward. To then hastily set the table for an obvious rug pull that transforms our antihero into the very thing he had hated up until that point was a surefire guarantee that my investment would wane. Kurzel and cinematographer Ari Wegner make his descent and subsequent last stand look absolutely gorgeous, but it’s superficially so.

I guess I needed more in the way of British persecution than what conversely felt like a personal vendetta. Ned’s rage is pointed directly at one man despite his rhetoric trying to fool him into believing otherwise. The script makes it a “me versus him” ordeal, concludes that mini battle, and then continues forward anyway as though we had already accepted there was more to it. I know there was historically, but all we have to get us there on-screen is Dan quickly telling Ned that everything he knew about their father was wrong. This single conversation radicalizes him overnight and we’re left with whiplash wondering why. Joe Byrne is too. Rather than use that reality as an in-road, however, it merely exposes just how wild everything progressed.

Knowing that Mary isn’t a real character means that most if not all of Ned’s dealings with Fitzpatrick, King, and Ellen upon his return home is fiction too. Because that’s what Carey injected into Kelly’s myth, it is theoretically the reason he wrote his book. So shouldn’t it be the part that works best? Shouldn’t it be the part that feels least rushed when given the cinematic treatment? MacKay, Davis, and Hoult do their best to ramp up the animosity on British versus Irish lines, but it all rings hollow once the former’s Ned compromises the identity he strove so hard to cultivate. The film should have come across as a profound stand for liberty, not the petty grievance between selfish people devoid of scruples we eventually receive.

[1] George Mackay as “Ned Kelly” in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
[2] Orlando Schwerdt as “Young Ned Kelly” and Essie Davis as “Ellen Kelly” in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
[3] Russell Crowe as “Harry Power” in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

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