In 1906, Ned Kelly was the subject of what is considered the very first feature length film (Charles Tait’s The Story of the Kelly Gang). He has been subsequently portrayed by the likes of Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger, so nobody can say his story is untold. However, some films are more accurate than others. Director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant strive for historical and psychological authenticity with their historically-informed adaptation of Peter Carey’s biographical novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, which releases today on VOD and opens old school at the Ocala and Mission Tiki 4 Drive-Ins.
Ned Kelly’s childhood was awful, as viewers will see and see and see again. His father was emotionally distant and largely incapable of providing for the family, whereas his mother was an Australian Lady Macbeth. Eventually, she “apprenticed” Kelly to the infamous Harry Power and then told him to man-up when he came running back, appalled by the bushranger’s violence. At last he learned a trade.
Frankly, the first act of True History is a grubby endurance test for viewers, but things pick up when Kelly comes of age and into his own. Initially, the prodigal Kelly resists the outlaw ways of his family, but his is forced into crime by circumstances and the villainy of Constable Fitzpatrick, with whom Kelly was formerly on (warily) friendly terms. The rest is violent history.
Although Kurzel and Grant generally side with those who see Kelly as a Robin Hood rebel instead of those (largely English) who disparage him as a cutthroat, they still drain the heroism out of his story. Instead, we get a naturalistic, proletarian Kelly. This a gritty, dank, and dirty looking movie, to a fault, but it still covers the major bases of Kelly’s life. Kurzel also displays a bit of a punk rock aesthetic that gives the film a slightly more contemporary vibe.
George MacKay (from 1917 and particularly impressive in For Those in Peril) is perfectly cast as Kelly. He is not huge of stature, but his wiry physicality and burning intensity create a palpable sense of dangerous instability on-screen. Surprisingly, Essie Davis is even fiercer as Mother Ellen Kelly.
However, the badly miscast Charlie Hunnam looks like he walked out of a L.L. Bean catalogue as the creepy Sgt. O’Neil, Ellen Kelly’s least favorite John. Nicholas Hoult snarls professionally as dastardly Constable Fitzpatrick and Russell Crowe (he sang in Les Mis) chews the scenery like an Aussie meat pie as Power, but the rest of the Kelly family and gang are largely colorless and free of distinguishing characteristics.
Kurzel’s True History has a lot of integrity, but his defiantly Spartan style sometimes gets in the way of the storytelling. It is the sort of film we can respect, but you probably won’t love it. Honestly, the Kelly-victimhood-canonization becomes rather exhausting, but we’re sorry we won’t be able to see how it plays for drive-in patrons. Recommended mostly for fans of class-conscious historical drama, True History of the Kelly Gang open today (4/24) at the Ocala and Mission Tiki and releases day-and-date on VOD.