Directed by Justin Kurzel and written by Shaun Grant, based on the book of the same name by Peter Carey, an exploration of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang as they attempt to evade authorities during the 1870s. Starring: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Russell Crowe, Charlie Hunnam, Nicholas Hoult, Thomasin McKenzie, Orlando Schwert, Earl Cave, Sean Keenan and Marlon Williams.
The story of rebel and outlaw Ned Kelly has been captured on film several times between 1906 and today, he’s been portrayed controversially by Mick Jagger and romantically by Heath Ledger, now it’s the turn of half Australian George MacKay, whose performance was practically eclipsed by being released in the same year as 1917. However, the first version of Ned that you’ll be introduced to is the younger, played by newcomer Schwert next to be seen in the reboot of Children of the Corn, and he starts things off on strong footing. Schwert may be new to acting but he gives a performance more than worthy of those with a mountain of experience, he brings forth Ned in a kind, resilient and caring manner, letting you see the potential and immediately invest in his character through his bravery and love of his family. When the baton is passed to MacKay we see a different side of Ned, in the midst of a bare knuckle brawl to the delight of an audience. His performance is engaging and uninhibited, it’s only further improved by the utterly mesmerizing narration, done with a smooth tone and an impressive presence, it adds another level to the film overall.
There are also a few very notable additions, particularly the wonderful Essie Davis who never disappoints, she’s an immense talent and her ability to channel intense emotion is rare, she brings a gigantic amount of energy to every character and this is no exception. Russell Crowe is also a very pleasant surprise in this role, it may be relatively brief but he has such a relaxing yet threatening cadence to his voice, he’s playful yet aggressive and it would have been interesting to see the life his character lived before he joins this story. Hoult and Hunnam provide great support as well but their performances feel like more of what we’ve seen from them already so they’re enjoyable watching but no real surprises in store. The only real outlier to the cast is Earl Cave, recent star of Simon Bird’s directorial debut Days of the Bagnold Summer, his performance simply doesn’t fit in this film, it’s overly understated, it lacks any real energy or connection to the rest of the cast. Of course, this is partially due to the way that his character is presented in the story and how the film lacks a larger exploration of the creation and connection of the Kelly Gang.
It’s ironic that while 2003’s Ned Kelly focused on the gang as a whole yet was named after the man, this film is named after the gang but is a one man show, focusing only on Ned as a person and breezing entirely over the rest of his comrades. It does take away from the film to not have spent time building that part of the story, embracing their brotherly love and the one brief moment where they try to include it, it comes across less brothers more Brokeback, which would have been an interesting addition if it had been their actual intention rather than incidental. There in lies a huge problem with the film, it focuses on the wrong things and forgets elements of the story when it suits it, such as McKenzie’s Mary who’s vital at one point then completely eradicated by the end. There’s a lot to the way that the story presents itself which explores Ned’s repressed emotion and so it severely cuts off the atmosphere needed to portray him as an outlaw, out to right wrongs and seek vengeance. The necessary infamy to Ned’s character is almost entirely missing, the focus is so strong on him that it doesn’t allow for the crimes and errant behaviour to really impact the story, making it about one man’s struggle with his family than a famous rebel.
A factor that isn’t helped by Kurzel’s inconsistent direction, when it sticks to the rural, raw elements to the story it works very well but at various intervals it strays from the path and tries much too hard, relying on strobe effects and heavy metaphors. The more dramatic elements that are explored are the moments where the direction is engrossing but when it occasionally tries to cross over into something criminal, it can’t quite seem to hit the right notes. The violence it does have is done in a fairly safe and softened manner, it’s much less aggressive and gritty than you’d expect. Kurzel’s direction reflects the writing’s leaning far too much on its thoughtful and reflective qualities rather than trying to present the more brutal side of the character. Ultimately Kurzel chose to go for style over substance in a lot of key moments which is a real shame because it doesn’t do justice to its fantastic cinematography.
True History of the Kelly Gang has tension, drama and conflict, George MacKay gives another brilliant performance and his powerful narration is beguiling but none of it can distract from the film’s issues with story and direction. The film left it much too late to grasp onto the brotherhood element of the story, a vital component and when it finally picked it up, it just slipped through its fingers resulting in an anti-climactic, unsatisfying finale. Kurzel seemed to have difficulty focusing on anything other than MacKay and was too busy throwing in random spurts of style to really see through the tale of infamy and crime that it promised.