Published by Universal Cinema Magazine
Ned Kelly, the late 19th-century Irish-Australian gang leader, has long had a hold on creative imaginations. Executed at the young age of 25 in 1880, Kelly had led a gang that fought the authorities head on in pre-confederation Colony of Victoria. He went on to become a legend of Australia’s bushranger culture and eventually a national hero. His story has proved irresistible for artistic adaptation. In fact, Australia’s The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) is sometimes known as the first feature-length dramatic film in world history. Among actors who’ve portrayed him are such household names as Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger.
Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang (2020) is the latest attempt. This is fourth feature by the 45-year-old Australian director whose 2011 debut, Snowtown, was based on the true story of a series of murders in the Australia of 1990s. With Macbeth (2016) and Assassin’s Creed (2016), Kurzel has previously shown his wide range in adaptation, moving seamlessly from William Shakespeare to a video game.
Kurzel’s True History is based on a 2001 novel by Peter Carey. The Man Booker Prize-winning book is anything but a ‘true history.’ It is a highly fictionalized account, written from Kelly’s perspective who, in Carey’s telling, becomes a writerly character intent on telling his story to the posterity, not least for the son he is leaving behind.
The film premiered at the Toronto festival last year and was released in its home country on Australia Day (January 26, 2020). Its international release hit the pandemic-plagued disruptions but IFC Films released it in late April for the US market and it is likely to be a popular streaming watch.
The success of Kurzel’s adaptation comes from the diversity of the elements he ably weaves into his visually impressive film. As several scenes in the film show, Kurzel awes with the film’s technical and visual prowess; but this never overpowers the other sides of the film and its strong foundations in imagery and story-telling. Kelly is played by 28-year-old British actor George MacKay. The Trophee Chopard-winning star was made his name after a memorable performance in Matthew Warchus’s Pride (2014, about the LGBT socialists supporting the miners strike in Britain), and a side role in Cannes-featured Captain Fantastic (2016.) By playing the lead in Sam Mende’s grand World War I drama 1917 (2019), MacKay established himself further and now Kurzel has given him an actor’s dream role. MacKay has delivered by giving a performance that is likely to be the most memorable Ned Kelly on screen for years to come. He is subtle, moving, balanced and sensitive; characteristics of Kurzel’s Kelly that is successfully built up through the film’s run of 124 mins, relatively short for a historical drama (disclaimer: I can’t judge whether, and to what degree, is Carey and Kurzel’s Kelly in line with the historical character — nor do I think this is particularly relevant.)
Kelly rises to become an an audacious gang leader with a messianic air and an obsession with the art of writing that reminds one of 20th century dictators. His path there is paved with fascinating elements at every point of his biography that make the film more than a noble savage fantasy: A strong and caring mother, a father pictured as weak who kills himself early on, a bushranger mentor (played ably by Russel Crowe) who initiates the young Kelly into a life of brutality, the persistent Irish identity as denoting an oppression by the British (a familiar theme in Australian national cinema), and, if the Oedipal origin story wasn’t enough, more Freudian elements such as Kelly Gang’s curious habit of cross-dressing when going into war or Ned’s relationship with a young prostitute (played by the 19-year-old Thomasin McKenzie) who becomes the mother of a child the father is never going to see. Having debuted as the lead role in Leave No Trace (2018), McKenzie gave a stellar performance in Jojo Rabbit (2019) last year and is now easily one of the best-known New Zealand actresses internationally. The teenage star (who also played a Danish queen in The King last year) gives another strong performance in True History and promises to be a force in the years to come.
These multiplicity of angles and elements often threaten to crowd a film but Kurzel makes them work for True History. The Antipodean wilderness becomes the perfect setting for Anarcho-Freudian fantasies that underpin the film — and that might find a willing audience in our apocalyptic-themed times.