The history of Victorian bushranger Ned Kelly is one of the foundational stories on which colonised Australia was built. An enigmatic antihero hellbent on war with the police in the 1880s, he encapsulated that aspect of our Australian identity built in opposition of authority whilst seeking to establish our own. It's a story told many times in Australian cinema, as recently as 2003, but none have been anything like Justin Kurzel's 'True History of the Kelly Gang'. Instead of bringing Kelly back to life, this adaptation of Peter Carey's beloved novel cracks the man wide open, performing a bloody autopsy not just on Ned Kelly, but on Australia itself.
The film begins by stating that this story is not the truth, beautifully contradicting its very title while establishing immediately the lens through which we need to view it - not as history, but as something more enigmatic. There is so much debate over what is true and what is conjecture about the Kelly Gang that beginning in such a place makes sense, freeing Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant ('Berlin Syndrome', 'Snowtown') from having to concern themselves with fact. This isn't Ned Kelly - portrayed here by as a child by Orlando Schwerdt and as a man by George MacKay ('1917') - as reality or even as legend. This is Ned Kelly elevated to myth, elemental and monolithic, as if he were birthed from the earth itself. We're not supposed to view this film as history but, as with all great myths, a mirror in which we can see who we were, why we have become who we are and what hides under the surface. In myth, our heroes can be fallible, can crumble, can turn from the righteous to the monstrous, can be questioned or contradicted, can be as much as a warning as an ideal. Here, Ned Kelly isn't a relatable Aussie folk hero. Here, he becomes a monument.
This film has no interest in tradition. It sits in a liminal space between the past and the present, slipping between both at will to haunting effect. Kurzel combines the horrific realism of his 2011 masterpiece 'Snowtown' with the opulence of his 2015 'Macbeth' into a hypnotic mix that's as much rock 'n' roll as it is opera. We're thrown headlong into a giddying gothic dreamscape, one as much constructed out of Kelly's complex and crumbling psychology, where the wild ferocity of the Australian landscape mirrors his own ferocity, borne of abandonment and the need to assert existence. His life is a performance at every turn - a performance of what it is to be a man, both in compliance with the expectations that come with such a concept and in sheer defiance of them. There's a palpable streak of homoeroticism throughout 'True History', but this is more to provoke discussion than response, questions around the intersection between masculinity and femininity, the power and danger inherent in both concepts and the gender constructs associated with them, and how they inform personal and familial relationships. MacKay weaponises his angelic qualities to create a Kelly that's both shockingly masculine and beguilingly androgynous, sometimes all at once, the antithesis to the bearded icon we associate with Kelly.
The story Kurzel and Grant tell is one of ascent and fall similar to that of Jesus Christ, but this is a Christ-figure driven not by forgiveness but by vengeance and blood. He isn't just seeking to destroy the authority of the police, represented here by Charlie Hunnam ('The Gentlemen', 'The Lost City Of Z') and Nicholas Hoult (the 'X-Men' franchise, 'Tolkien', 'Mad Max: Fury Road'), but the concept of the father figure itself, one that has brought calamity onto both himself and his mother Ellen (Essie Davis, 'The Babadook'). His desire to protect his family has that family unit morph into an army, with himself as the righteous prophet at its centre, a figure beyond the bodily concepts of gender and flesh but a leviathan of vengeance, culminating in his final form as a perfect collision between the masculine and the feminine.
'True History' takes the textures of Australian gothic seeded throughout such classics as 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' (1975) and 'The Proposition' (2005) and develops them through Kurzel's keenly aesthetic eye. The risk is always that of style over substance, but almost every decision is informed by the vast dramaturgy of the screenplay, and the queer-adjacent lens through which we look offers a myriad of unexpected surprises and delights. Cinematographer Ari Wegner ('Lady Macbeth') matches chaotic immediacy with impressionistic beauty, with exceptional work on par with Warwick Thornton's in 'Sweet Country' or Radek Ladczuk's in 'The Nightingale'. Her work also adds a vital female gaze to the film, shooting the male form in a way that is distinctly both sensual and frightening. Production designer Karen Murphy and costume designer Alice Babidge fully embrace the collision of the past and present, with subtle choices and textures making the film feel modern without you ever being able to articulate why, from the choice of an object to the cut of a shirt.
Wegner, Murphy and Babidge also play with the iconography of Ned Kelly in surprising ways, avoiding obvious choices while weaving them into the visual look of the film itself, including architecture and the evolution of the film's aspect ratio. As a consequence, they highlight the prevalence of these icons in our own time, and pitch them in such a way that they become icons to dissect rather than revere. It possibly seems reductive to say so, but I suspect that much of the success of the film playing with the performance of gender is due in great part to these three women, elevating the already fascinating lens applied to Kelly by Kurzel, Grant and Carey's original novel. Kurzel's frequent collaborator Jed Kurzel also once again delivers a hypnotic and arresting score, a symphony of tonal and textural contradictions that is his best work since 'The Babadook'.
This is Ned Kelly elevated to myth, elemental and monolithic, as if he were birthed from the earth itself.
With 'Macbeth' and 'Assassin's Creed' (2016), it seemed that Justin Kurzel might have started to lose the promise of 'Snowtown' in his aesthetic pursuits, but here he returns to a rigorous and bold dramaturgy where the ideas and characters are served by the aesthetic, rather than the other way around. In many ways, this is a far more playful film than his previous work, and Kurzel is unafraid to lean into the surreal or metaphorical, conjuring moments that both delight and horrify. His execution of violence is still unmatched in its unrelenting visual and emotional impact, and his careful control of the swing between the operatic and the shocking adds to the singular and powerful quality of the film. This feels like a return to form for Kurzel and an evolution of his craft as a filmmaker, taking significant steps away from his established tropes towards a more experimental approach to storytelling.
It's unsurprising what a remarkable cast the film assembles considering the stature of its source material, and all of them deliver terrific performances, even if they can seem on occasion one-dimensional. Essie Davis devours the conundrums of Ellen, where the desire to be a good mother and the need to survive don't always meet, and it's great seeing her dominate in a role as substantial as this again. Charlie Hunnam and Thomasin McKenzie do solid work as Sergeant O'Neill and Kelly's love interest Mary Hearn respectively, while Nicholas Hoult builds on his scene-stealing work in 'The Favourite' as Kelly's fierce adversary Constable Fitzpatrick, and Russell Crowe delivers his best performance in years as Kelly's early mentor and tormentor Harry Power. At the centre of the film though is George MacKay's powerhouse performance as Ned Kelly, ferocious and full-bodied work bursting with electricity and danger. Lesser actors would get lost in the hypermasculinity woven into this version of Kelly, but MacKay balances that beautifully with his questioning confusion over what kind of man he is and what kind he should be. There are intelligence and control behind the bombast, fully committed but with one foot carefully removed so as to calibrate his work to weave with the dramaturgy of the film rather than overpower it. In a way, MacKay gives the performance Joaquin Phoenix thinks he is giving in 'Joker', and a far better one. MacKay has been doing great work for years, but this is a breakout, career-defining performance, one that haunts you long after the film ends.
I've now written a lot of words about 'True History of the Kelly Gang', but I really don't feel as though I've scratched the surface of this fascinating, complex and shattering film. Using the story of Ned Kelly and his exploits, the film unpacks the concept of Australian myth-making, questions the stories and figures on which we have constricted our Australian identity, and challenges the ideals of Australian masculinity. 'True History of the Kelly Gang' is a magnificent symphony of chaos and contradiction, fury and fear, confusion and clarity, love and revenge, compassion and violence. It left me stunned and speechless, my brain ringing with the sheer scale of it. This is yet another great film digging into the fabric of who we are as a nation and what we have done to get here - in this case, the myths we have constructed to explain and justify the best and worst of ourselves. Justin Kurzel has delivered a remarkable and singular film, as arresting as it is provocative, and already one of the best of the year.
'True History of the Kelly Gang' is now showing in selected cinemas in major cities, and will be available to stream on Stan from the 26th January 2020.