‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ Is a Sexy, Gender-Bending Western That Packs a Punch
The new Aussie Western about outlaw Ned Kelly (available on-demand April 24) features a stellar cast, including George MacKay, Nicholas Hoult, Essie Davis, and Russell Crowe.
Justin Kurzel’s new film, True History of the Kelly Gang, is only the latest cinematic effort to dissect the complicated legacy of Ned Kelly, the 19th-century Australian outlaw and bushranger. For many Australians, who either revere Kelly as an anti-authoritarian Robin Hood figure or revile him as a brutal criminal, it’s strange that the movies have failed to produce a memorable film about this legendary figure to rival classic Hollywood crime dramas such as Bonnie and Clyde.
Mick Jagger delivered an eccentric but famously lackluster performance as the hirsute gangster in Tony Richardson’s 1970 Ned Kelly—and critics were not much kinder to Heath Ledger’s stab at impersonating the Aussie icon in Gregor Jordan’s 2003 biopic, also titled Ned Kelly. Seven years ago, when Kelly was finally formally buried years after his execution by the authorities in 1880, the BBC maintained that he was still a “polarizing” figure that divided Australians into warring camps of fans and naysayers.
Kurzel is a director whose fondness for stylistic audacity can result in films that, like the anachronistic flights of fancy by his compatriot Baz Luhrmann, occasionally degenerate into baroque excess. It’s unsurprising that Kurzel possessed the cockiness to believe he could make a successful Ned Kelly film despite other filmmakers’ poor track records. It’s equally unsurprising that Kurzel chose to adapt Peter Carey’s picaresque novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, for the screen. Carey’s irreverent take on the official accounts of Kelly’s escapades, as well as his playful, quasi-Joycean prose, appealed to Kurzel, who made up his mind to make a film that, although indebted to some aspects of traditional Hollywood genres such as the gangster film and Western, was not, the jokey title notwithstanding, preoccupied with dry as dust historical truth.
Determined to make a punk gangster-cum-Western that outpaces all of the previous Ned Kelly movies, Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant gleefully seize on a few of Carey’s primary historical embellishments—alternative facts about the notorious outlaw that nevertheless make him all the more pertinent for a hip 21st-century audience. George MacKay, who gave a low-key performance in 1917, embodies an unorthodox, if trendy, incarnation of Australia’s version of Jesse James. He’s depicted as a pansexual proto-rock star and cross dresser who thinks nothing about putting on a frock when holding up a train or carousing with his gang.
The film begins somewhat conventionally and slowly builds to a series of delirious set pieces that fracture space and time in order to provide audiences with a visceral understanding of the machinations of the Kelly Gang. The young Ned, played by talented newcomer Orlando Schwerdt, is an androgynous kid with mommy problems. Kurzel, in turn, lays on the Oedipal conflicts with a trowel. The teenaged gangster-in-training is both attracted to his doting mother (in a fine performance by Essie Davis, who made a name for herself with international audiences after her star turn in The Babadook) and repelled by her compulsion to earn a bit of money by providing sexual favors to Sergeant O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam), a local constable. The implicit message is that Ned’s life of crime was almost preordained by both his family’s hatred of the police and his psychosexual hang-ups.
Complicating this psychological portrait is a supplementary emphasis on the political—especially the anti-colonialist—fervor that, in theory, inspired Kelly to become an unrepentant bandit. John “Red” Kelly, Ned’s father, was repatriated as a convict from Ireland to Australia for stealing pigs and we are apparently meant to assume that this trauma generated a lifelong hatred of authority.
Red Kelly is, however, a weak parental figure and Harry Power (Russell Crowe), an infamous bushranger, becomes Ned’s surrogate father. A violent but capable mentor, Harry teaches Ned to shoot and dares his young protégé to shoot O’Neill in the genitals when the vicious constable is caught naked, and in the throes of passion, with a nubile young woman. Ned fails to rise to the occasion and spares his target. But his future vocation is not in doubt. As Power proclaims to his charge: “Make sure you’re always the author of your own history because the English will always take it and fuck it up.”
Yet in a film where nothing is more consistent than narrative inconsistency, this anti-colonialist motif is soon abandoned and replaced with the more prominent gender-bending theme. Another constable named Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) initiates a boldly homoerotic relationship with Ned while simultaneously seducing the outlaw’s sister Kate. As played by Hoult in an enjoyably showy performance, Fitzpatrick comes off as the personification of tongue-in-cheek decadence, an outback incarnation of Oscar Wilde whose propensity for conducting conversations with Ned in the nude certainly does not conform to stereotypical portrayals of cops on the beat.
Oddly enough, the robberies and shootouts that one would think would be emphasized in a Ned Kelly film remain fleeting, largely unmemorable occurrences. While this cinematic strategy might be deemed ingeniously subversive, Kurzel is too enamored of his own stylistic gimmickry to make this approach work. Replete with swirling, vertiginous camera movements and perversely gratuitous camera angles, the action scenes seem like mere window dressing. The nominal climax, a dimly-lit confrontation with the police at Glenrowan in the state of Victoria, renders this seminal event in Australian history supremely unmemorable. Kurzel reintroduces many of the quirks that marred his much-derided adaptation of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and an inaudible, if lovely, Marion Cotillard.
Despite Kurzel’s rather hollow arsenal of filmic pyrotechnics, True History of the Kelly Gang is worth seeing for its star turns, particularly MacKay as the gaunt, epicene, and clean-shaven adult Ned, a portrayal that purposefully violates the antihero’s image as a hairy iconoclast; Crowe as Power, the veteran bushranger; and Hoult’s highly theatrical performance as a constable who swings both ways. Despite some early reports to the contrary, the definitive Ned Kelly movie has not yet been made.