Revisionist history: ‘Kelly Gang’ blurs truth of notorious outlaw in unsettling, punk-soaked drama

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Director of the film ‘True History of the Kelly Gang,’ Justin Kurzel. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Preston Barta // Features Editor

TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG

Rated R, 124 minutes.
Director: Justin Kurzel
Cast: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam, Thomasin McKenzie and Russell Crowe

IFC Films’ True History of the Kelly Gang begins: “Nothing you’re about to see is true.” 

The end of the text on screen slowly morphs into the film’s title, hinting at the wild ride that is about to ensue in Justin Kurzel’s latest polarizing drama. It might be fair to say the closest this comes to being a “true story” is that the classic Aussie lore inspires it. Kelly Gang is a fully reimagined snapshot of history with punk-soaked imagery and devilishly committed performances. 

Based on Peter Carey’s 2000 novel of the same name, the story purports to be the confessional narrative of the 19th-century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly – played here by 1917’s George MacKay – a name that carries a similar thrilling resonance as his American contemporary, Jesse James. The only difference known to non-Australians may be how the two Robin Hood-type figures went about their business. Kelly did so with his head encased in an iron helmet (to protect from firefights) and used cross-dressing as an intimidation tactic to challenge authority. (Although, the latter dons more complicated meanings in the film.) 

The legend of Kelly and his cohort has been told on screen many times. About 11 feature films have followed the outlaws’ exploits, with the first known dramatic feature ever being 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang. Kelly has been portrayed by Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger in 1970 and the late Heath Ledger in 2003. 

With so many versions out there, what more can we absorb from Kurzel’s adopted interpretation at this crowded table? 

Perspective, vitality and emotional depth for starters. Kurzel, an Australian native who helmed 2015’s Macbeth and The Snowtown Murders, doesn’t simply place a magnifying glass on Kelly’s fractured masculinity and classism. He lights the fuse to blow, uncovering deeper complexities about the human condition in the process. 

[From left to right] Essie Davis As “Ellen Kelly”, Russell Crowe as “Harry Power”, Orlando Schwerdt as “Young Ned Kelly” and Director Justin Kurzel in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

“This story made me question how historical figures are written and how we shift history to suit the present and what we need from it,” Kurzel said. “Ned Kelly has meant so many things to people, especially in Australia. His armor was something you had to go see [at the Dome Galleries of the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne]. There has been a fierce debate about whether Kelly was good or bad. Within him, we understand who we are as Australians – and what we’ve been.” 

What appealed most to Kurzel was the story’s point of view. Carrey’s novel is a thoroughly researched account while also a corrective to the popular pegging of Kelly being a thief and murderer. While still dabbling in misdeeds, the Kelly in this story is positioned more as folk hero and freedom fighter — a daring exemplar of Irish-Aussie perversity in the face of colonial oppression. 

“The idea of [Kelly] wanting to save his history before it was out of his hands was unique. That was always the starting point for [everyone on the film]. When the book came out, most people looked at its title and assumed it was the definitive version and exact truth of who Ned Kelly was. But, of course, it wasn’t,” Kurzel said. “It’s an absolute play on words. The irony was missed by many, which is what pushed us toward the quote that opens the film. It sets the tone.” 

A scene that further builds upon the raspberry blown on Kurzel’s behalf is the moment that quickly proceeds its quote. Kelly is writing to his daughter about knowing what it is “to be raised on lies and silences” before his inevitable demise. He doesn’t want his family to “confuse fiction for fact” and view him in an unsavory light. During his telling, audiences are introduced to Kelly in a manner that practically sees grime collecting on the television screen. 

Cinematographer Ari Wegner’s camera slowly creeps up on Kelly’s childhood home, showing a young Kelly (a knock-out of a newcomer in Orlando Schwerdt) peeking through the loose aluminum sheets to witness what’s happening within. He spots his beloved mother, Ellen (Babadook star Essie Davis – and Kurzel’s wife), performing a sexual act on disgustingly corrupt Sgt. O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam). Rather than be spooked by the child’s presence, the law enforcement officer cocks his head back to smile at the kid while eating a piece of fruit. 

“I had come off some challenging films in the U.K., and I wanted to do an Australian film with Australian actors and voices. I wanted something bold where I could reach a little bit more. True History of the Kelly Gang seemed to be elastic enough to be playful, ignore history, and steer away from biopic territory. [The filmmakers and I] wanted to be unshackled,” Kurzel said.

Essie Davis As “Ellen Kelly” and Orlando Schwerdt as “Young Ned Kelly” in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

It’s apparent throughout the film that not much tied Kurzel down. If reading about the first act seemed testing, brace yourself for a sequence featuring another officer, Constable Fitzpatrick (a never-better Nicholas Hoult), who holds a crying baby at gunpoint. It’ll make your toes curl and heart sink. 

“During that scene, the child was hungry and upset, and there was a synchronicity in [Hoult] being agitated by the fact that he was holding a baby he couldn’t calm,” Kurzel revealed. “The gun suddenly meant something else entirely from what was in the script. It was written as: ‘a calm policeman stands there, threatening a mother with a gun to the child.’ However, it became a scene about the dismantling of the cop.” 

Kurzel said the intimidation of the baby caused so much crying that it undid the uniformed character. It plays to the journey of Fitzpatrick throughout, in regards to him slowly uncorking. It’s one of many scenes, as unnerving and frustrating as it is, opens the door to more thoughtful themes. 

Budget restrictions and happy accidents (like the baby scene), to a degree, are welcomed by the filmmaker, who recognizes the challenges as a way to be more creative as a storyteller. Whether he doesn’t have enough extras to create the visual intensity of an army or period-accurate costumes, Kurzel digs into the emotional perspective of his characters to raise stakes. 

“Within the world of the characters, you have to ask what their point of view is, and how can you express that. I’ve always been drawn to that question. We couldn’t afford to have the 120 cops needed for [the climactic shootout at Glenrowan] or have them dressed properly. I only had 30. So, I needed to explore the emotional point of view. That’s always been the answer to a lot of my practical problems,” Kurzel said. “Ultimately, it winds up becoming more interesting because you’re testing yourself with cinema and using every available source to tell that point of view as opposed to filling it with more extras.” 

Kurzel combines his past explorations – the epic myth of Macbeth and the real Australian crime within his debut, Snowtown – to tackle the material with aplomb. True History of the Kelly Gang is by no means a comfortable viewing. Kurzel and his filmmakers paint the outback in a thick, demoralizing red coat. However, if you can shake it, the gritty reality Kurzel creates extends its hand for unforgettable lessons in human truth.

True History of the Kelly Gang is available today on digital platforms.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.