Film Review – True History of the Kelly Gang (2020)

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Justin Kurzel’s punk Western drama goes out with all guns blazing in his anarchic take on the Kelly Gang legend. Set during the 1870s, Kurzel introduces us to the sweeping barren landscapes of Australia, punctuated with lifeless trees like veins crawling through the sky. Atmospheric and breathtakingly beautiful, Kurzel immediately establishes the stylized tone of his film, blurring the lines between mainstream cinema and arthouse.

Despite what the title would have you believe, True History of the Kelly Gang is actually a fictionalised dramatization of vaguely true events. The script is based on Peter Carey’s 2000 novel of the same name, modified with a ton of artistic license necessary to achieve such striking aesthetic flair. Though the inaccuracy of Kurzel’s adaptation has gotten some critics in an uproar, the film does in fact make it clear that this is not a true story in the opening credits. Besides, True History of the Kelly Gang is not a documentary – nor does it claim to be. Therefore, to judge it on historical reliability alone would be extremely unfair (not to mention missing the point entirely).

Putting the biographical element of it aside, True History of the Kelly Gang is a bold and brutal retelling of the infamous bushranger Ned Kelly (George MacKay), leader of the cross-dressing Kelly Gang. We begin, however, with young twelve-year old Ned, before his days of gore and glory. After being sold by his struggling mother, Ned accompanies the notorious Harry Power (Russel Crowe) as a teenage accomplice, who teaches him the strategies of a bushranger.

The first half of True History of the Kelly Gang is a tense, slow-paced drama that bursts into life (or more accurately, death) once Ned morphs from a “Man” to a “Monitor”. Although we are given a thorough and emotive context to Ned’s childhood, his switch from troubled teen to murderous lunatic is somewhat sudden and unmotivated. Nonetheless, MacKay’s performance is undeniably brilliant, tapping into an almost frightening essence of madness; veins popping and a face covered in mud; singing one minute and screeching the next.

Kurzel employs a great sense of contrast between many elements of the film. Not only does this add amplify the shock value of his epic gangster flick, but is also a good cinematic tool to convey emotion and meaning. Almost all of the male characters – not just the Kelly Gang – are brimming with animalistic masculinity. Guns, women and violence are all at the centre of their universe, alongside the want to provide for their family (or themselves). However, the Kelly Gang members also wear bright, glamorous dresses as part of their armour. They do this as a sign of their insanity, claiming that “Nothing scares a man like crazy.” Their androgynous appearance is largely normalised by the end, blurring gender boundaries in a time when it would have been punishable by death.

Another use of juxtaposition can be found in the contrast of history and modern day. Although the story remains in the 19th century – with traditional wardrobes, set design and language – a few qualities are entirely contemporary. From strobe lighting and glowing neon uniforms to pop art poster designs, True History of the Kelly Gang is a unique blend of aesthetics spanning almost two centuries. Kurzel’s rock ‘n’ roll renovation of a classic tale is risky but refreshing- thankfully achieving just the right balance.

True History of the Kelly Gang is a film that enjoys flaunting its offbeat charisma, placing a matcho folk legend in world of polished, avant-garde cinematography. Though this may, at times, verge on pretentiousness, I find nothing wrong with a film that “tries too hard”. This implies that filmmakers are wrong to put so much time and effort into their craft! So long as these creative flourishes are employed with purpose (which they are), experimentation in cinema should be encouraged. True History of the Kelly Gang may not have been a critical success, but it tells its story with confidence and originality.

True History of the Kelly Gang is a gruesome and gritty biopic (sort of), clinched by impeccable acting, infuriating villains (most notably Nicholas Hoult) and an eerie closing shot. You can almost feel the texture coming out of the screen; blood and dirt saturating every other scene. Think: Peaky Blinders (2013-Present) meets The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018). If that sounds up your street, True History of the Kelly Gang will be available for digital download from June 22nd and UK DVD & Blue-ray release on July 6th, 2020.