VOD film review: True History of the Kelly Gang
Chris Bryant | On 01, Jul 2020
Director: Justin Kurzel
Cast: George MacKay, Russell Crowe, Charlie Hunnam, Essie Davis
Read our interview with director Justin Kurzel
Tracking infamous bushranger Ned Kelly’s path from his poverty-stricken beginnings to his eccentric showdown with police after years on the run, Justin Kurzel’s outlaw biopic embraces the unreliable narrator well, but never manages to find its footing long enough to go beyond that.
Boasting George MacKay (fresh from 1917) in the titular role, True History of the Kelly Gang shoots sharpest in the casting department. A warm performance from Russell Crowe as outlaw Harry Power and a small-but-unhinged turn from Earl Cave as Ned’s brother compliment the cruel, toying British colonial lawmen, played by Charlie Hunnam and Nicholas Hoult. It’s MacKay, however, who truly shines, balancing a young, disenfranchised outsider with the ruthless renegade he was portrayed as.
Woven together by Kelly’s voiceover – a letter to his daughter – True History plays with the truth but seems to lose focus elsewhere. Moments of the picture reach the heights of Kurzel’s psychotropic bloodbath take on Macbeth, but the effort is simply too unfocused to balance the artistic scenes of madness with any emotional weight. The story itself is enough to keep your attention, but not enough to do anything special with it.
The audience is given a tour of Kelly’s hyper-masculine childhood, his father-figures and formative lessons, his implied intimate relationship with cohort Joe Byrne, his transition to righteous killer – without being given much time to take much away from them.
The difficulty with biographical films is often that the most exciting parts of real lives don’t occur in the third act, and that the narrative is given more weight than the emotions it should contain. With Kelly’s tale, however, his legendary final act is exactly the sort of wild blaze-of-glory films often desire. Shaun Grant’s script tackles the issues present in most biopics by subverting Kelly’s violent reputation, but fails to turn that into much in the way of tension or excitement, or any feeling at all. It’s a film brimming with interesting information, without crafting them into art.
Worth watching purely for MacKay and Kelly’s younger self (a spectacular Orlando Schwerdt), True History of the Kelly Gang is overflowing with unrealised potential – outback visuals, bloody showdowns, the inner-workings of a true outlaw – but remains a fascinating story with little more to offer.