The famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” comes to mind when watching Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang. The film begins by telling you “Nothing you’re about to see is true,” and then uses Ned Kelly (George MacKay) writing a letter to his son swearing that the following record of Ned’s life is the truth. In this way, we see Kelly writing his own legend, a legend that persists today as an iconic Australian outlaw. The main problem with the film is that it can’t seem to decide on whether or not it wants to burnish that legend or demythologize Kelly, so it gets caught in this awkward middle ground where the film is kind of a critique on colonialism but also a tale of Kelly realizing and embracing his “destiny” as a violent criminal. True History drags on by failing to provide any insight to Kelly’s story nor does it impress why his legend has persisted for over a hundred years.
Beginning in Australia in 1867, the film follows Kelly from “Boy” (Orlando Schwerdt) to “Man” (MacKay) to “Monitor” (a reference to when Kelly wore bulletproof armor and killed a bunch of police officers). A solid two-thirds of the film is Ned, an Australian colonial whose family hailed from Ireland, trying to avoid the criminal lifestyle that seems to be thrust upon him by outsider actors. His prostitute mother Ellen (Essie Davis) sells Ned to the bushranger (i.e. highwayman) Harry Power (Russell Crowe) to learn the life of being a criminal. As an adult, Ned has a confrontation with Irish constable Alexander Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) but can’t bring himself to kill the police officer. Eventually Ned accepts the violent life he has to lead and the final act is Kelly and his band of cross-dressing compatriots (they wear frocks because “crazy” scares their enemies) planning to take on the police force so he can stage a jailbreak for Ellen.
Perhaps Australian audiences and/or those already familiar with Ned Kelly will get more from True History, but for those like myself who only have the passing knowledge that Kelly was an Australian outlaw, Kurzel’s film fails to offer an illuminating angle on the man or his myth. While I don’t expect biopics to be 100% true, True History is two hours long and I still don’t feel like I really know any more about Kelly than I did when it started. The framing device of Kelly writing his memoirs seems like it would present the opportunity to demythologize the outlaw or explore why he was such a popular figure, but he remains inscrutable for most of the picture. The closer we get to Kelly, the less we see.
When Kelly refuses to kill an Australian officer (Charlie Hunnam) who was responsible for the death of Ned’s father, we’re left to wonder why. Is it because he values human life? Is it because he doesn’t want to unleash his inner darkness? When he balks at killing Fitzpatrick, what’s his motive? No one wants to give us a read on Kelly, so his actions remain inscrutable. Perhaps for Kurzel this is the point—that there’s no way to get to the “truth” of Ned Kelly, but that rendering deprives the film of a pulse. Ned Kelly is, to wit Shakespeare, “When he is best he is a little worse than a man, and when he is worst he is little better than a beast.”
By the same turn, Kurzel doesn’t seem to know what to do with the legend of Kelly. The facts are muddled as hell, and their depiction doesn’t tell us anything about the characters. Kurzel knows how to paint a pretty frame, but those images don’t inform us about the narrative. If this is a grandiose hero tale of Kelly’s telling, then why is everything so gross and dingy? If this is a gritty, unvarnished truth, then why become hyper-stylized in the “Monitor” sequence? It seems like Kurzel wants to have it both ways without regard for illuminating Kelly and his legend.
Is Kelly a glammed up thug? Is he a folk hero? Is his tale a blow against the tyranny of British colonialism? Even if Kurzel’s goal was to show the impossibility of reconciling reality with legend, the result is a movie that comes off as a slog. Kurzel has a cast of strong actors at his disposal, but they’re all stuck in a grimy, dingy movie that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be about so it settles for some half-baked notions about colonialism, criminality, and family loyalty. True History of the Kelly Gang didn’t need to be a completely accurate account of Ned Kelly’s life. It just needed to be compelling, and it fails.
There is currently no U.S. release date for this film.