TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG
(director: Justin Kurzel; screenwriters: Shaun Grant/novel by Peter Carey; cinematographer: Ari Wegner ; editor: Nick Fenton; music: Jed Kurzel; cast: George MacKay (Ned Kelly), Orlando Schwerdt (The Young Ned), Russell Crowe (Harry Powers), Nicholas Hoult (Constable Fitzpatrick). Charlie Hunnam (Sergeant O’Neil), Essie Davis (Ellen Kelly), Ben Corbett (Red Kelly), John Murray (Dead Dan Morgan), Thomasin McKenzie (Mary Hearn ), Jacob Collins-Levy (Thomas Curnow), Sean Keenan (Joe Byrne), Earl Cave (Dan Kelly), Marlon Williams (George King), Louis Hewison (Steve Hart), Claudia Karvan (Mrs. Shelton ); Runtime: 124; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Justin Kurzel/Hal Vogel/Paul Ranford/Liz Watts; IFC Films; 2019-France/Australia/UK)
“The truth is not something to be cherished in this fictionalized biopic.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This is the third film to touch on the same subject, but delivers something different and perhaps more powerful from the other versions by emphasizing the legendary criminal’s rotten childhood as a reason he was so bent on violence. It again tells us about the notorious Australian 19th-century outlaw Ned Kelly (George MacKay), who was hell-bent on anarchy and fighting for the downtrodden as he made war with the English colonial oppressor, in the Irish badlands of colonial Australia, but who was captured and hung in 1880 at the age of 25.
This prankster version and the one in 1970, with Mick Jagger, are versions I can live with even if many critics found it risible to have Mick as the lead in the older version. The one in 2003 with the late Heath Ledger was a bomb and we can dismiss it as a misfire. In this one, Ned is given the traditional view of being kin to the outlaw Jesse James and some kind of weird version of the populist Robin Hood figure. But tells us emphatically the difference in the romantic outlaw figures of lore is based tragically on MacKay growing into a toxic man because of his poisonous childhood and that he is not as well thought of outside his country as he still is in Australia.
It’s based on the rollicking 2001 novel by Peter Carey of the same name. Aussie director Justin Kurzel (“Macbeth”/”Assassin’s Creed”) works from a crisp script given him by his regular collaborator, Shaun Grant. They try to sell it as a semi-true story (but dismiss any facts that get in the way of the storytelling). It offers an episodic account of Kelly as he morphs into his monstrous legendary folklore character. It includes the homo-eroticism and sexual ambiguity in his gang’s cross-dressing. According to Steve Hart (Louis Hewison), one of the cross-dressing Kelly gang members, the frenzied gang wore women’s dresses to astonish and scare the enemy, and to experience their own sensual pleasure of the crime.
The Kelly Gang begins by telling us of the 12-year-old Ned Kelly (Orlando Schwerdt) sold by mom to the educated but notorious bush-ranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe, in a good cameo). The well-ripped Ned is tutored by Power in the art of shooting and thievery, and in being ruthless.
During this time, Kelly falls in love with brothel whore Mary Hearn (Thomasin McKenzie). But she weds another. Ned also clashes with the evil Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), after he holds a gun to an infant’s head.
After his mom is unfairly arrested, A grown-up Ned forms his gang by rounding up his brother (Earl Cave) and two friends, including his erotic lover Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan) and also Steve Hart. The gang all wear dresses to begin a bloody robbing and killing spree that became known for its brutality and risk-taking. The film covers these wild escapades, giving the adventure story a bit of an edginess.
The final showdown is uniquely photographed, it features Ned inside a homemade bulletproof metal suit, while a row of white-clad figures fire at him from the distant horizon (they are seen through the small, wide slit in Ned’s helmet), with strobe lights used as the light needed to film the dark scene.
The film is narrated in a voiceover as an open letter from Kelly to his infant daughter, who the whore Mary gave birth to (But history tells us he never had a child. As the filmmaker seems to tells us so what if he never had a child, truth is not something to be cherished in this fictionalized biopic).
The Kelly Gang can sometimes be a brilliantly startling film, while at other times it’s only overkill and nothing deeper. Take your pick, it’s a flawed film that’s not intent on making any profound points only to make sure it gets the violence across surrounding Ned Kelly’s trip into madness.
The director’s brother Jed gives us a vibrant score, as we tune into all the mayhem with his throbbing sounds.
On further reflection, maybe what the film wisely tells us is that we should question the validity of all the folklore heroes passed down to us.
REVIEWED ON 5/15/2020 GRADE: B