[TIFF Review] ‘TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG’ a provocative​ look at a legendary anti-hero

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James Clay // Film Critic

TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG

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

TORONTO – Australia has developed an active roster of filmmakers. Often these talents craft harsh films that can reward viewers with an artistic vision. From the brutality of Jennifer Kent’s THE NIGHTINGALE to the spectacle of George Miller’s MAD MAX: FURY ROAD – even Baz Luhrman’s voice has resonated with audiences – filmmakers from the Land Down Under mine from a region that has a wealth of historic mythos.

And that is precisely what director Justin Kurzel does with his latest film, TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG. 

Kurzel’s somber style blends well with the sparse landscape of Australia as he tells the story of the country’s most legendary antihero. He is a calm filmmaker, and this is his most lively film to date. He blends a punk rock attitude with raunchy bits of dialogue. Kurzel’s modern sensibilities keep his film in control (until the lackluster third act derails the narrative). THE KELLY GANG’S best asset, however, is its cast. They maintain the film’s enchanting feel once the story begins to lose control.

As you may have noticed, the story follows Ned Kelly (Orlando Schwerdt as a child, and up-and-coming actor George MacKay as an adult). From a kid learning the ropes to an adult with a full-fledged ideology that spreads across Australia, Ned Kelly is a fascinating character to watch evolve. 

Ned discovers a dress his father secretly uses for thieving raids. Using this as a weapon to challenge his masculinity and unsure of what it represents for himself, Ned begins taking over the mantle as “man of the house.” Kurzel uses the constant threat of competition to fuel the emotional turmoil going on inside the male characters. Kurzel’s ideas of masculinity are playful as they are thought-provoking. 

This leads his mother, Ellen (Essie Davis), to proudly provide for her family by selling her body to a scuzzy Australian officer (Charlie Hunnam). Kurzel’s film proudly wears its immorality and celebrates people like Ned Kelly. They are figures you want to keep at arm’s length, but also individuals you are happy to have in your corner when the time comes.  

Ned is sold off to Harry Power (Russell Crowe), a brutish man with a penchant for filthy stories. He is keen to teach the little guy all about the ways of the trigger. Ned adopts to this lifestyle quickly, drinking wine and fending for himself.

There is an air of confidence, as Kelly’s story bursts to life. From Kurzel’s typical meditative style and performances like Crowe’s, who gives the story some much-needed seasoning, as a standout supporting performance. The veteran actor gleefully uses portly physicality to embody a lovably nasty curmudgeon. Ned’s life with Harry catches up to him in the long run. He gets sent to prison for shooting a man who once slept with his mother. 

The Kelly family has always been an oppressed group who’ve been abused by the system since they touched down in Australia. They have played nice until they cross paths with Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), who becomes an unexpected (if not untrustworthy) ally.

Ned, now a fully formed criminal, corrals his brothers and a local army to wear dresses on their raids as a disguise. With a lifetime of burdens on his back, he knows the authorities fear what they do not understand. 

Kurzel’s film plays with the male gaze by almost sexualizing the relationships Ned has with his close companions. There is a level of unexpected eroticism at play – chiefly with Hoult, who hams it up. Hoult is quickly becoming a go-to choice to play a well-to-do arsehole after his role in THE FAVOURITE last year. 

TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG is anything but ordinary; however, the wheels keep spinning as Ned’s story loses any thematic ground once he takes his place as the leader of his criminal unit. It’s a volatile tale that never becomes fully formed. Kurzel challenges us to rewrite our history and become the author of our own lives. Despite a few grumbles, this is the definitive version of Ned Kelly. 

Grade: B-

TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Encore screenings will be held on September 11, 12 and 13. More information on those screenings can be found on tiff.net. The film is currently seeking distribution. A release date is to be announced.