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Review: True History of the Kelly Gang – “A mesmerising piece of cinema”

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2003’s Ned Kelly, starring the late Heath Ledger in the titular role alongside Orlando Bloom and Naomi Watts was my first acquaintance with the 1800s’ Australian bushranger. It was a quasi-swashbuckling version of the legendary Aussie outlaw with Irish heritage fighting the English oppressor, that played up like an old school American western. Nothing against that kind of style and approach but almost twenty years later, True History Of The Kelly Gang’s take on the infamous antihero is much more fitting for our times.

Based on Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, this revisionist look at Kelly’s life, imbued with punk rock vibes, is a mesmerising piece of cinema by visionary Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, Macbeth) who digs deep within the birth of a nation by exploring the coming of age of an icon. Told across three chapters that mark a specific phase rather than just an age period in the subject’s life, the film begins with the warning “Nothing you’re about to see is true”, which ironically morphs into the film’s title.

That ambivalent approach to the truth comes straight from the source material, which doesn’t fully stick to the historical facts. In the book Peter Carey tells Ned Kelly’s story in first person, imagining the voice behind the psyche of our hero. The cinematic rendition is framed by adult Kelly’s voiceover as he writes his own history for his child, following the advice of former mentor Harry Power: “always make sure you’re the author of your own story because the English will always take it and fuck it up”.

Aussie newcomer Orlando Schwerdt makes an impression in the first act of the film as young Ned, coming to terms with his father’s inability to take care of their family and his mother Ellen (Essie Davis) indulging Sgt O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam) in sexual favours in order to keep a roof over their head. When his dad gets convicted for stealing a cow and eventually dies in prison, presumably murdered by Sgt O’Neil, Ned steps up as man of the house to help his mother and siblings survive in the bleak Australian bushland in 1867.

It’s immediately established how the emotional core of this particular Kelly tale is the complex love/hate relationship between Ned and his mother. Sent off into the wild with her most recent lover Harry Power (a pitch-perfect Russel Crowe) allegedly to collect livestock, Ned soon finds out he’s been sold to the notorious bandit as his apprentice. But the boy has barely any time to process the betrayal, since the man ambushes him with a terrifying initiation that will change the boy forever.

After spending some time in jail and then seemingly forging a new path for himself as a spunky fighter in illegal lucha libre matches for the entertainment of the wealthy English nobility, young adult Ned, now played with histrionic nuance by the brilliant George MacKay (1917), returns home only to find that nothing much has changed. His mother is engaged to a Californian who’s almost the same age as him, his brother Dan (Earl Cave) and his mates have been lured by the American intruder into becoming horse thieves, whereas the ever-haunting English presence is now embodied by petulant Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult in a career best turn), who befriends Ned only to further his manipulative agenda.

Once again, the common need to resist the British oppressor is what eases Ned back into his family life after his emotional return had reopened old wounds of the complicated relationship with his mother. Reluctant at first, Ned and his best friend Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan) who tagged along after getting out of jail, join Dan and his mates’ outlaw enterprise. As things keep escalating for the worst with Constable Fitzpatrick determined to mark his territory, Ned takes the helm and steers the Kelly gang toward new ambitious albeit even more dangerous objectives.

The filmmakers make abundantly clear from the get-go that this story is not black and white. They wanted to show both the good and the bad of Kelly, and let the audience decide. Some will still call him a hero, and some will still call him a cop killer. This ambiguity is key to the storytelling and masterfully embraced by every member of the outstanding ensemble. George MacKay’s chameleon-like, towering portrait of Kelly cements him as one of the best actors of his generation. His approach to the role is visceral and his physical transformation fully committed to deliver an inspired take on a figure who is now embedded in Australia’s culture.

Essie Davis shines as the equal parts vulnerable widow and Lady Macbeth-like Kelly matriarch, oozing with confidence and the sex appeal of someone who’s always in control of the situation. Even when things have irreparably fallen apart, she reacts with relentless stoicism. Davis’ talent is matched by the extremely nuanced Nicholas Hoult whose charmingly vicious turn as Constable Fitzpatrick is probably the most compelling, subtle villain we’ll see on screen this year. The brothel scene where a naked Fitzpatrick has his first heart to heart with Ned is the kind of sexually ambiguous moment destined to titillate even the most repressed viewer, regardless of gender or orientation.

Everything comes together seamlessly thanks to Kurzel’s masterful vision and impeccable execution in every department. After the unfortunate mishap of trying the Hollywood blockbuster route with the ill-advised Assassin’s Creed, the Australian filmmaker is back to his roots with a stylish, hypnotic and sensational piece of cinema. It’s a testament to how the magic of filmmaking only needs inspired ideas and well-guided craftmanship to immerse the audience in the world of its stories. Kurzel knows how to stage even the most mundane scene in a compelling way as much as he knows how to go full blast when it’s time to.

As we enter the final act with Ned reaching the extremes of the Kelly Gang’s venture, the build-up towards the spiraling climax feels like a vortex swallowing everything on its way. Ari Wegner’s cinematography is breath-taking since the opening image – a smooth aerial tracking shot of someone riding a horse through a stark scenery – and beautifully captures the stunning Australian landscape in all its shapes and forms throughout the film. But the rendition of the infamous siege of Glenrowan in 1880 is something else. Words couldn’t do it justice and would ruin the effect of seeing it for the first time. It’s a bombastic sequence where the hallucinogenic visuals and the vivid soundscape make for a sensorial overload that brilliantly counterbalances the subdued, yet haunting calm of the inevitable epilogue. The intense finale alone justifies the ticket price but the whole film is a cinematic journey worth experiencing for the first time on the silver screen.

True History Of The Kelly Gang is in UK cinemas from February 28th.

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