Spanning the younger years of Ned’s life to the time leading up to his death, the film explores the blurred boundaries between what is bad and what is good, and the motivations for the demise of its hero. Youth and tragedy collide in the Kelly Gang, and at the beating heart of this tale is the fractured and powerful love story between a mother and a son.
Cast: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholoas Hoult, Oorlando Schwedt, Thomasin McKenzie, Sean Keenan, Earl Cave, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe
Director: Justin Kurzel
Writers: Shaun Grant (screenplay by), Peter Carey (based on the novel by)
Ned Kelly has become a folk tale for Australians to tell one another. A hero we once had who fought against the man; a true robin hood, a symbol of what a true Australian is and should look like. Or so many would have you believe. Especially those with a southern cross tattoo to backup their Ned Kelly memorabilia from that one trip across Victoria and up to Glenrowan. We’ve had many films and TV projects tell the story of the Kelly Gang, the last film even starred the late Heath Ledger in 2003. None of these past films has captured the folklore and character that Kelly has become in history in such a truly pop-punk fashion as Justin Kurzel’s latest film does.
True History of the Kelly Gang doesn’t attempt to be a faithful biopic and for it, it’s a more exciting, visceral and enthralling look at the myth and legend that is Kelly. Here we meet Ned as a young boy (newcomer, Orlando Schwerdt) watching his mother Ellen Kelly (Essie Davis in a powerhouse performance) give a Sergeant a blowjob to leave her family alone. Sergeant O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam) spots Ned’s spying eyes and is more than happy to let the boy watch his mother continue on her knees, in fact, he plays into it more, he wants the young boy to know he’s in charge around here. Outside O’Neil will tell Ned that his father, who’s well aware of what his wife must do with little to say about it, ride around at night in a dress. With two hits Sergeant O’Neil has attacked Ned and his father’s masculinity and Ned falls for it. At night he finds his father’s dress hidden away and burns it as he adopts a new image for himself to be the true man of the house.
Ned is eventually sold-off by his mother to Harry Power (Russell Crowe in a small but memorable role), a bushranger whom she hopes will teach Ned the necessities to survive and provide for his family, but this ends with Ned’s title as a man being challenged once again and him being arrested for the first time.
If there’s one core through-line that will transcend the film into real life, it’s the films insightful prodding on the masculine image of Ned and the Kelly Gang. But it’s this aspect of the film that is mostly touched upon as Ned transitions into an adult that makes for some of the films standout scenes.
The adult Ned Kelly is portrayed by a well-toned and muscular George MacKay. The infamous image of a bearded Ned Kelly is not once seen in this film as Ned is instead presented clean-shaven with an androgynous look. His teased romantic relationship with Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan) is seeping with sexual chemistry, but any true romance is saved for between the sheets of the script.
As Ned returns home as an adult he meets Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) in a brothel and the two men share one of the film’s most intimate explorations of the character’s sexual explorations with Hoult sitting on a couch wearing nothing but sock-suspenders. It’s the short-lived friendship with Fitzpatrick however that will send Ned and his to-be-gang on the run.
When it gets to the most famous period of Ned and the Kelly gang’s life the film doesn’t attempt to paint them as heroes or villains. Ned’s a tortured man with a love for his mother that can’t be torn down no matter how much anyone tries and he’s willing to go to war with the English to protect her. The Kelly gang dress up in dresses to scare their enemies. They eventually mould that famous armour. And the final shootout in Glenrowan is the most visceral and visually interesting version I’ve seen on film, but a certain jump away from any heroic final stand against the enemies of the state.