True History of the Kelly Gang, 2o19.
Directed by Justin Kurzel.
Starring George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Russell Crowe, Orlando Schwerdt, Thomasin McKenzie, Charlie Hunnam, Earl Cave, and Sean Keenan.
The life of Ned Kelly, from childhood in a poor Irish convict family in Australia, to his eventual face off with British authorities as a wanted outlaw.
Truth is something that has become very subjective. Justin Kurzel’s latest feature seems well timed – it arrives in an era woefully described for a few years now as “post-truth”. Kurzel makes the case that, for the infamous at least, this has always been the way of the world. Applying his trademark grit to a story that was dark enough to begin with, Kurzel provides his version of history. Why not leave truth to be questioned later?
Focusing on key periods of Ned’s life, True History aims to give some explanation as to how a person might end up as a celebrated criminal. In a similar regard to Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the antagonists shaping the lives of Ned’s family are the British officers – disgustingly rough caricatures who are always looking to take something for themselves. The tight knit family is key here, and writer Shaun Grant fosters young Ned’s dependency and ultimate love for his manipulative mother, played by the excellent Essie Davis. With clear friends and foes, it only remains to add repetitive hardships, and watch Ned develop into the man he was meant to be. Through child actor Orlando Schwerdt’s brilliantly strong performance, it is fascinating early on to see a shade to Kelly that shuns violence and avoids crime.
These become the three main themes Grant follows throughout the script, adding intrigue to what otherwise might have been a standard Hollywood biopic. The familial theme is well held, propelling virtually all of Ned’s actions in the latter half of the film. What is slightly disappointing is that Grant drops the theme of Ned’s reluctance to murder, and seems to do so merely to serve the story. It would not be quite so striking, had the film not already shown at least three instances in which Ned could have, and perhaps should have, pulled the trigger before this. When he finally does, there is no time given to the change in his mentality – it is a theme brushed over and flippantly disregarded.
This is, of course, an issue with Kurzel’s manner of filmmaking. More so than most directors, he is obsessed with style and creating memorable imagery, to the detriment of subject. From the opening horseback ride through barren Australian land to the climactic clash, there are a great many instances of cinematographic perfection and poster-worthy bliss. But that superficiality sparkles through other areas of the film. As much as Nicholas Hoult appears to enjoy his performance as officer Fitzpatrick, the character is almost entirely void of substance. Even the fantastic George MacKay struggles towards the end, as the film abandons Kelly’s former cohesiveness and logicality, adopting instead a garish animalistic manner. It is acting for show, and lacks that all important truth.
For this is the third, and most important theme Grant is exploring. The film frames Kelly as the teller of his own story, which is destined to be butchered by time and inaccuracy. It is a clever comment on the notion that history is written by the victors, but also on the process in which a person becomes an icon. Perhaps most important, True History never demands that you believe what is being presented. The film doesn’t claim to be interesting through the mere fact that it is based on a true story, as many biopics do. Kurzel’s film is the fantastic spectacle one might expect, and in the end, succeeds in its originality and general disregard for formula. If only it didn’t get carried away with stylish indulgence.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★