True History of the Kelly Gang (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): An unconventional bushranger film

Justin Kurzel’s new film “True History of the Kelly Gang” is an unconventional bushranger film which tries some different things in its decidedly fictional account of the life of Ned Kelly, one of the most notorious Australian bushrangers in the late 19th century. Although I am not that sure about whether it succeeds as much as intended, the movie is still an interesting genre exercise on the whole, and it is also supported well by several strong performances in addition to its distinctive post-modern approach.

After boldly announcing to us that what we are going to see is not exactly the true story of Kelly and his infamous gangs, the movie, which is occasionally accompanied with the narration of Kelly around the end of his life, begins with his early years in a remote rural area of Australia in the 1860s. While his father is a useless bum with a criminal record and a certain sexual secret, his mother, presented by the sassy and fierce performance from Essie Davis, has supported her family via prostitution, and her most frequent client is Sergeant O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam), a local police officer who often regards her and her family with contempt and malice.

In the absence of any father figure to lean on, young Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) soon gets to learn how to be the man of his house, while his father keeps doing nothing for his family. At one point, he kills a cow belonging to someone else and then delivered a big chunk of meat to his family, and his mother is certainly glad to see how much her dear son is willing to do anything for her and his siblings. In case of his father, he is not so pleased to see his wife showing more affection to her son, but then he chooses to be punished instead of his son when Sergeant O’Neill inevitably comes for arresting whoever is responsible for butchering that cow.

Ned’s father dies not long after he is sent to a prison, and Ned’s mother soon comes to consider having another man in her life. That man in question is Harry Power (Russell Crowe), a real-life bushranger who was quite notorious during that time. While spending some time with Ned and his family, Power comes to befriend Ned, and his mother subsequently has her son accompany Power for making him into a man, though she does not tell her that she actually sold her son to Power in exchange of 15 pound.

Although Power does not enslave Ned at all while treating him fairly well on the whole, he soon shows Ned how brutal and ruthless his world is. At one point, he has Ned assist him during his latest criminal deed, and he also later coerces Ned to confront Sergeant O’Neill when Sergeant O’Neill happens to be in the middle of, uh, some private business. While Russell Crowe and Charlie Hunnam do not hesitate from their respective characters’ unpleasant sides, young actor Orlando Schwerdt does more than holding his own place well between Crowe and Hunnam, and we can clearly sense how young Ned is shaped further by the violent and heartless environment surrounding him and others.

After the first act, which is titled “Boy”, the movie moves onto Ned’s adulthood period during the second act, which is titled “Man”. Now played by George MacKay from this narrative point, Ned has earned some money via bare-knuckle boxing match for a while, but then he is gradually thrown again into the life of a criminal shortly after returning to his family home, and he naturally comes to clash with Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), who seems to be fascinated with Ned in more than one aspect but then becomes quite hostile to him and his family due to a complicated private matter involved with a young local prostitute named Mary (Thomasin McKenzie).

Once he finds himself pursued along with his brothers by the police, Ned goes further as increasing his notoriety around Australia, and the mood surrounding him and his criminal associates accordingly becomes quite gritty and brooding while mixed with some unconventional stylish touches from time to time. For example, cinematography by Ari Wegner provides a number of visually jarring moments such as a certain phantasmagorical scene drenched in strobe lights, and the soundtrack of the movie contains a couple of sudden bursts of punk rock music, which makes a weird contrast with Jed Kurzel’s gloomy score. In addition, the movie generates some amusement from the rather ambiguous sexuality of Ned and some other supporting characters, and you may be amused a lot to see Ned’s gangs wearing dresses mainly just for their naughty fun from transgression.

Like many other movies about outlaws, the movie fatefully enters the last act showing the end of Ned and his gangs, which is titled “Monitor”. While we get an intense sequence ultimately leading to Ned getting arrested and then imprisoned before being eventually hanged in 1880, the movie becomes less compelling around this narrative point, and even the committed performance from George MacKay, who became more prominent thanks to his solid performance in “1917” (2019), does not compensate for that weak aspect much.

Overall, “True History of the Kelly Gang”, which is adapted from Peter Carey’s novel of the same name by Shaun Grant, is entirely successful in its unorthodox handling of its familiar story and characters, but it is still as fascinating as Kurzel’s previous work “Macbeth” (2015), which was an unconventional interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. I only admire it rather than liking it a lot, but it is still a curious attempt worthwhile to watch in my inconsequential opinion, so I recommend you to give it a chance someday.

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