Review: True History of the Kelly Gang

Over his career, Justin Kurzel has taken a liking to distinctly Australian stories, starting with the historic Snowtown murders in Snowtown (2011). He then directed an “episode”, Boner McPharlin’s Moll – inside the anthology film The Turning (2013) –  using stories based on the works of Australian author Tim Winton.

After an excursion into a more global genre of storytelling with Macbeth (2015) and Assassin’s Creed (2016), Kurzel has come back to take on perhaps the most Australian tale of all: Ned Kelly.

Ned Kelly has – and perhaps always will be – spiritually tied with the blueprints of Australian culture and identity, with the story itself mirroring many cultural themes of Australian history.

Like the great exploring cowboys of The West mirror the American identity, Ned Kelly – and in turn bushrangers as a whole – do the same for our local audience. And with the “western” genre predominantly missing from the Australian film landscape, it ushers in the beautiful timing of The True History of the Kelly Gang’s release.

This is a story of identity, history, and myth; all relevant in Australia today.

Ned Kelly’s identity – and in turn the masculinity of his brutality – is called into question completely by Kurzel and Grant’s adaptation. Ned’s relationship with his parents is a new angle in which to approach the narrative, and the emotional complexities that reside inside these types of bonds are shown as they are: unpredictable, yet welcoming; suffocating, yet fulfilling; primal, yet emotional.

For a character that’s historically been portrayed only as a masculine, tough man, Kurzel’s Kelly is built by a lifetime’s collection of emotional traumas, rather than anything to do with his muscles or reputation.

This is eloquently manifested by the film’s use of dresses – even the masks worn by the young men have been swapped from the usual war-like helmets for delicate, pastel lace.

This playful quality of bending the truth in service of something new extends from the protagonist to the larger story at hand, the land, the police, the gang, and the family. The characters become archetypal, transforming history into a fairy-tale.

With where Australia is today, the film uses narration to engage the audience in a dialogue with Ned himself. This serves to use his experiences in his own words as a guide of reference and places his philosophy onto what has – or most importantly what hasn’t –  changed since the backward times of outlaws and crooked coppers.

The central lesson passed onto Ned by Harry Power (Crowe) is that a man should have authorship over his own history. This is amplified within the narrative with surrealist moments, which allow the film to be viewed as Kelly’s own re-telling rather than a removed historical viewpoint.

While you watch, ask yourself, is the far-off, almost science-fiction-like version of Australia presented in Ned Kelly really that foreign to where we are today?

Ahead of the film’s Australian release, Double Feature’s Luke Saunders sat down with director Justin Kurzel to discuss many of the choices he made throughout the film, which without his explanation may seem confusing or historically inaccurate. You can read it here.

True History of the Kelly Gang is out now on Stan in Australia, with a UK and US release coming soon.

Image by Luke Saunders