Justin Kurzel has an eye for terrible beauty. The desolation of this film’s 19th century Victoria is fanciful gorgeous. Bright lights strike tall shadows across the barren landscapes, and gunfire is a surreal cacophony of flashes. Kurzel stays close to his fierce subjects as they square each other down in emotional but bleak showdowns. Although this is a film about folk heroes, it’s far more interested in humanity at it’s most vulnerable and angry. The distinctive and experimental cinematography is appropriate for this singular take on an iconic figure.
The True History of the Kelly Gang is a film about a legendary figure that is deeply concerned with the nature of legends. Throughout the film Ned Kelly (George Mackay) is writing his own life story, justifying his actions and attempting to take control of his legacy. Taking it’s title from the book on which the film is based, the film has very little to do with the gang itself. It’s a very personal story that keeps it’s focus very much on the troubled young man as he liberates himself from his dire circumstances via the only means left to him. Mackay presents a Kelly pushed to desperation and near-madness in his pursuit of something he could consider justice.
The film eschews many aspects of Kelly’s life that may be the focus of more conventional films. The sequence of him assembling his crew, committing those first few crimes, and taking on larger and larger scores is mostly covered in a single montage that also covers his legendary armour. Far more time is spent on Kelly’s character and motivation. We spend a fair amount of time with him as a boy as he experiences injustice and poverty at the hands of an indifferent system and a corrupt police force. Disappointed in his father’s ability to provide for the family, an anger his mother encourages, he very quickly resorts to crime. Very quickly we are learning that this world will be reluctant to offer Ned and his family any legitimate means of saving themselves.
The attitude towards violence is very interesting. Kelly’s reputation is one of a loveable rogue but his legend as a gentlemen highwayman is complex and the film does well to recognise this. The film presents Ned as a force of pure anger against an oppressive system and borrows a great deal of punk rock aesthetic and music to tie this spirit into recent memory, but it does not shy away from his violence and erratic behaviour. The forces that pull him towards violence are shown to be unstable and even cruel. His mother, played believable menace by Essie Davis, is a Lady Macbeth type who fuels Ned’s fears and violent ambitions. Early on Ned falls in with the merciless bushranger Harry Power, who is brought to tremendous and charismatic life by Russell Crowe. Together they form the basis of Kelly’s anger.
Another aspect of it’s subversion is it’s use of gender iconography. Kelly discovers that his father wore dresses which becomes further evidence to him of his unsuitability as a father. Later he discovers that outlaws in this area wear women’s clothing to intimidate their enemies and he participates in this practice as well. Whilst there is something glorious about seeing an intimidating man shamelessly wearing a lace dress, it is still part of a coding that these are different and therefore dangerous. They don’t seek acceptance for wearing these clothes but instead depend upon the fear afforded to them by a gender rigid society. Never the less it is still exciting to see this particular societal norm subverted.
Perhaps this film will play differently to those more acquainted with Ned Kelly and his legacy. Having only vague memories of the underwhelming Heath Ledger film, I had few expectations for the film when it came to the life of the infamous outlaw. I was aware, however, that I was watching a Justin Kurzel film and accordingly expected something extraordinary and provocative. The True History of Ned Kelly undeniably delivered on these expectations.