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Film Review: “True History of the Kelly Gang” Is a Fascinating Misfire

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 23rd, 2020

Film poster: “True History of the Kelly Gang”

True History of the Kelly Gang (Justin Kurzel, 2019) 2 out of 4 stars.

A cinematically evocative treatment of the life of Ned Kelly, Australia’s notorious 19th-century outlaw, and also an adaptation of Peter Carey’s eponymous 2000 Booker Prize-winning novel, director Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang is many fine things at once, none of which quite add up to a good movie. Still, there is a lot to appreciate in the narrative mishmash, most notably the cinematography, performances and relentless energy. Kurzel (Macbeth) is possessed of a sharp visual and aural flair that makes of his latest work a kinetic ballet of moving parts, often holding viewer interest even as it makes little sense. It’s not the frequent anachronisms – those only add to the allure – but the overreliance on dramatic ellipses without any grounding structure that ultimately results in a fascinating misfire, rather than an exciting success. Still, it’s rarely boring.

When first we meet young Ned, he is but a boy (Orlando Schwerdt) watching his mother fellate a British police sergeant. Yes, it’s quite the childhood. They’re Irish in a newly colonized land that rates them poorly, and dad is a drunkard. Mrs. Kelly (Essie Davis, The Babadook) does what she can to make ends meet, including, eventually, selling Ned off to a genial ruffian (Russell Crowe, The Nice Guys), who gives him his first real taste of the criminal life. Ned doesn’t much take to it, and runs back home, though an event in which he partook comes back to haunt him, and off to jail he goes.

George MacKay in TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG ©IFC Films

Flash forward a number of years, and he grows into George MacKay (1917), all wiry, lean muscle and equal parts brash confidence and demure timidity. By the time he reunites, as an adult, with Ma and his siblings, they are embarked on a livestock-stealing scheme of which he wants no part. But hey, they’re family, and things happen, and before long he is the leader of a violent clan that threatens to upend the tenuous social order of the young nation. Dressed in makeshift armor that protects them from bullets, the Kelly gang is unstoppable. Until they are stopped, that is.

MacKay is his usual mesmerizing self, magnetically intense as he fumbles his way towards infamy. Davis makes a powerful matriarch, and folks like Crowe and Charlie Hunnam (The Lost City of Z), as that officer from the opening, Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit), as Ned’s eventual love interest, and Nicholas Hoult (Tolkien), as another policeman who starts off a friend and ends up an enemy, all serve to enrich the texture of this odd, manic mélange of a movie. Unfortunately, at the center of the tale is a great big void where Ned’s character should be, MacKay’s excellent acting undercut by a script that goes nowhere fast. By the end, when the inevitable happens, it’s hard to care much, since we know so little. But at least we had some fun along the way.

Orlando Schwerdt and Essie Davis in TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG ©IFC Films
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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