The alleged true story of Ned Kelly, an Australian bushranger of Irish descent who goes on a violent rampage against authorities after his mother is imprisoned during the 1870s.
‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ would appear from the outset to be a revisionist western, such as ‘Unforgiven or Bone Homahawk’, which go about breaking down and criticising conventions of the western, most notably its adherence to violence. But what Justin Kurzel offers defies expectations, scene after scene going in directions you can’t predict. If this isn’t a true history, it’s certainly a beguiling one.
‘True History’ is pretty grim from the outset as we see Ned’s mother Ellen (Essie Davis) selling herself to a sergeant (Charlie Hunnam) for money while his cross-dressing father Red (Gentle Ben Corbett) turns a blind eye and later pees drunkenly all over the house, to Ellen’s disgust. Newcomer Orlando Schwerdt gives a great performance as young Ned. Then Russell Crowe shows up to act as protégé to Ned and lover to Ellen. He delivers an especially delightful scene in which he leads the Kelly family in a round of the song ‘Constable C-word’ (surprisingly, Crowe actually sings quite well here).
From there the movie flashes forward and Ned Kelly has grown into George MacKay, who recently had a terrific turn leading ‘1917’. He and Essie Davis give highly commendable performances, as does Nicholas Hoult as the unhinged and wicked Constable Fitzpatrick. There are intriguing homoerotic undertones between him and Kelly, and between Kelly and his friends. But where ‘True History’ is at its most dynamic is when it focusses on familial relationships, most especially the tension between Ned and his mother as she rails him for not being a real man (he fights to do what’s right, she just wants him to fight). Indeed masculinity is another theme director Justin Kurzel is concerned with here, as is the subjectivity of memory. With Kurzel’s last feature having been the misstep that was ‘Assassin’s Creed’, it’s great to see him back on track again, having made great movies like ‘Snowtown’ and ‘Macbeth’ (with Michael Fassbender) in the past.
‘True History’ moves along at just the right pace and has a great script from Shaun Grant which is punctuated by moments of black humour. Be wary that there’s more emphasis on relationships (it also address Irish-English tensions) than there is on action, but by the end it gets very bloody and violent, especially in that final battle, recalling ‘Apocalypse Now’. Its punk rock stylised production design (Karen Murphy – ‘It Comes At Night’, ‘A Star is Born’, ‘Queen & Slim’) is another level on which to enjoy the movie so that overall, while it has issues such as the mental disintegration of Ned coming a little too quickly, it is a very good film.