True History of the Kelly Gang (2019)

Rates: * * * 1/2

Why Did I Watch It? Recommended by my work colleague Frank.

Cast, crew, etc.

On a ragged stretch of remote, near barren farmland, an Australian legend is born: Ned Kelly; son, husband, criminal, and star of a very long list of biopics. And as you would expect, here we get Kelly’s troubled upbringing, his violent adolesence, his descent into crime and subsequent death.

But director Justin Kurzel has gone out of his way to try and make his film not just that. While all the classic elements of a Ned Kelly story are here, and this is a life that Australian film makers are drawn to time and again, it has never been told quite like this.

This version focusses much more on Ned’s personal relationships, and really charts his rise and fall in a progression of these. First, and most important, his enigmatic mother Ellen (vivaciously played by Essie Davis), a sexual being with complete trust in her own instincts, even as they frequently lead her, and her children, astray.

Her patchy decision making is on full display when she sells her son to Harry Power, a rugged bushranger who wants an extra hand. He takes Ned on the road, and introduces him to life outside the law; a bittersweet experience where fireside singalongs sit adjacent to cold blooded murder. And at this point, the film is really firing.

As Power, Russell Crowe finds his most charismatic movie star persona, commanding the screen in his best role in years. His escapades with his young ward crackle with comedy, tension and pathos; if this part of the film had been two hours long and called ‘The Adventures of Young Ned Kelly’, this review would be 5/5.

But the second half of the film is not quite as strong.

After a stint in jail, Ned then tangles with Constable Fitzpatrick (NIcholas Hoult), a snooty Englishman with an inflated sense of purpose. And this is where the film’s lack of a wider scope counts against it; Kelly’s relationship with Fitzpatrick is not as intriguing as that with his mother or Power, and you never really get a sense of the wider forces in society that push the Kelly’s to crime.

Irish immigrants at this time had no real recourse to the law, police were corrupt and they were frequently discriminated against, and it was this frustration that lead to theft and violence. In this film, it plays more like the outcome of a petty squabble, with the cop and the criminal engaged in a dick measuring contest. I get that this movie is not interested in the wider socio-political elements, but having them removed completely does sap some of the story’s resonance.

But even if it runs out of steam, there is a lot to enjoy. Kurzel has a keen eye for unusual perspectives and camera placement, and there are many clever and original shots (my fave is probably Ned, warming up for a bare knuckle boxing match). There is also a genuinely bravura set piece finale, with the shoot out at Glenrowan depicted like a nightmare set in a futuristic underground club; hard to describe, thrilling and weird.

Kurzel’s brother Jeb has contributed an excellent score that adds a lot to the atmosphere (although I do wonder how many times he has listened to the ‘Interstellar’ soundtrack), and the production design is inventive. There is just enough anachronistic placement of era inappropriate clothes and objects to crack the illusion of this being set in a specific time; instead it feels like it takes place in a kindof everytime, that helps connect the events to the present day.

A really interesting and well made movie, just short of classic status but a lot to recommend it.

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