George MacKay as Ned Kelly
Orlando Schwerdt as young Ned Kelly
Russell Crowe as Harry Power
Nicholas Hoult as Constable Fitzpatrick
Essie Davis as Ellen Kelly
Sean Keenan as Joe Byrne
Jacob Collins-Levy as Thomas Curnow
Thomasin McKenzie as Mary
Charlie Hunnam as Sergeant O’Neill
Claudia Karvan as Ms. Shelton
Marlon Williams as George King
Gentle Ben Corbett as Red Kelly
Earl Cave as Dan Kelly
Louis Hewison as Steve Hart
Directed by Justin Kurzel
True History of the Kelly Gang Review:
Ned Kelly has been one of the most fascinating figures in global history nearly a century and a half since his execution, spawning debates from Australians and the worldwide population alike as to whether to see him as a folk hero in the Outback or as a murderous villain unfit of the title. Though he has been depicted on screen to varying degrees of success and connotations over the years, Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of the Peter Carey historical fiction novel True History of the Kelly Gang may be the most captivating yet.
Set amidst the grueling badlands of 19th-century Australia, legendary outlaw Ned Kelly (MacKay) grows up under the bloody and uncompromising rule of the English. Food is scarce, survival is filled with daily strife, and every opportunity the colonizers take to make their victims feel powerless is inflicted with searing brutality. In a desperate attempt to prime him for rebellion, Ned Kelly’s mother (Davis), sells him off into the hands of the notorious bushranger Harry Power (Crowe), where the young bandit discovers he comes from a line of warriors called the Sons of Sieve. Fueled by his roots and a voracious appetite for revenge, Ned Kelly leads an anarchist army to wreak havoc on their oppressors in one of the most audacious attacks the country has ever seen.
The fabrication of history has been a thematic element seen constantly since the birth of the biopic genre and the extent of changes made to the story of one’s life or lives is a tricky balance of staying true to the facts and their subjects as well as delivering a genuinely entertaining affair for audiences and Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant have mostly succeeded in finding this middle ground. The general story of Ned Kelly has been one marred in uncertainty and mistruths and though Kurzel and Grant lean into this by depicting some of the more questionable and unknown events in his life but have chosen to take the tone of believing him to be a folk hero versus a villain.
By taking a side in how they view the character, audiences find themselves genuinely connecting to the titular outlaw, from his teenage days seeing his mother selling her body to provide for him and his many siblings to being sold off to bushranger Henry Power and learning the ways of crime and trying to maintain the old ways of the Outback rather than evolve with time. In keeping the story mostly focused on Ned and his intentions behind all of his actions, we find ourselves further attached to a man trying to ensure his version of history and his story are passed down properly through his (fictional) infant daughter and sympathize with him as much of what he does is all in the hopes of giving his family a better future.
While the story and its themes are generally compelling and intelligent, some of where the film falters comes in its pacing, which feels like an odd ebb and flow of ramping up Kelly’s life to explosive moments and then pulling the rug out from under audiences’ feet to take it back to his quieter and introspective nature. Should the film have found a more proper balance between the two or leaned in one of the directions, it could have thrived further and set the bar high for any future Kelly adaptations, but instead it feels taking the occasional misstep whilst attempting to climb the world’s largest stairs: you may stumble on the way, but should you reach the top, you’ve earned the respect.
This tonal imbalance is mostly saved, however, by the powerful performances from its entire ensemble, with each A-list star beautifully bringing to life the rogues gallery of people important in various part’s of Kelly’s life. Hunnam and Hoult, typically known for their protagonist roles, shine as two of the most detestable and double-faced characters ever seen in a western while Crowe and Davis are haunting as those who want a better life for Ned, even if it’s not through the best of means.
Speaking of Ned, MacKay delivers what is arguably the best performance of his career, wonderfully tapping into some of the more quietly menacing nature of Kelly while also delivering on all of the violence required of his criminal past. MacKay’s stellar performance is elevated to even further compelling levels thanks to the gritty and stylish direction from Kurzel, who keeps the camera close to its stars to help further amplify the tension and anxiety experienced by Kelly and those around him throughout the course of his life. The Australian director finds a way to blend a timeless aura to the film with its 19th century setting, with many of the settings finding a way to feel like forgotten relics in the Outback, no matter the time period, and bringing a real electric vibe to the latter third of the story, including a climactic shootout bringing Ned’s iconic bulletproof armor to life.
Overall, Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang may not be the most compelling from start to finish and may have some tonal balancing issues, but thanks to stylish direction from the Aussie, a fairly intriguing screenplay and phenomenal performances from its ensemble cast, namely MacKay, this is by far the best adaptation of Ned Kelly’s story thus far, even if not the most accurate.