“Nothing you are about to see is true” appears onscreen at the start of True History of the Kelly Gang – the latest in a long line of films about Australia’s most celebrated and notorious outlaw Ned Kelly. It’s a deliberate provocation, because what follows feels messily, brutally plausible. This is no Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid glamorisation, but more in the line of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, with a punk rock twist.
Based on Peter Carey’s novel, adapted by screenwriter Shaun Grant, the plot covers much of Kelly’s life in a deliberately jagged, disjointed fashion, with subtitled acts entitled Boy, Man, Monitor. “Every man should be the author of his own history,” is a line spoken by Kelly’s mentor, Harry Power (Russell Crowe), but it resonates throughout the entire film, subverting much of the Kelly legend, stripping away the myth and looking at the man, even though this film too, is inherently fabricated. Like The Assassination of Jesse James, this is less concerned with conventional outlaw genre mechanics – there is little in the way of robberies, hold-ups, chases, and so on – and instead becomes a visceral, dirt-under-the-fingernails delve into the formative forces that shaped Kelly. As a child, he is exposed to much brutality and criminality, with his innocence eventually shattered as he is sold by his own mother to Power. As an adult, Kelly is a confused, sexually ambiguous figure whose reluctance to pull the trigger is further thrown into doubt by apparently friendly overtures from charismatic but duplicitous English constable (Nicholas Hoult). “You’re not the man you pretend to be,” he says, in possible reference to many things (including the way Kelly’s criminal gang wear dresses to shock those they rob). There’s also an alarming toxicity to Kelly’s relationship with his formidable sex-worker mother (Essie Davis), particularly in the chilling moment when as an adult Kelly confronts her for selling him to Power. She merely shrugs and says “Nothing in life is free”.
Performances are excellent – especially from the afore-mentioned Davis and Hoult. Orlando Schwerdt is compelling and haunting as the young Kelly, whilst George MacKay brings an awkward, sinewy physicality to the role, along with tremendous rage. Director Justin Kurzel and cinematographer Ari Wegner conjure extraordinarily atmospheric images throughout; including vivid landscapes of skeletal trees in the wilderness, and the horrifying, stroboscopic, trippy final night shoot-out. The nightmarish advancing lines of seemingly invisible lawmen clad in white cloaks is more an image from fantasy/horror rather than Aussie western.
For all its brilliance, the film feels uneven and a little overlong at times. Also the relentless harshness and brutality will put off many (strong violence, extremely strong language, and sexual content feature throughout). However, all things considered, despite flaws, True History of the Kelly Gang feels vibrant, fresh, and rigorously cinematic.
UK Certificate: 18
US Certificate: R
Content Warnings: Strong violence, extremely strong language, sexual content.