Based on the 2000 published Peter Carey written Booker prize-winning novel of the same title, True History of the Kelly Gang is one of the best films to come out of Australia in many years. Not shying away from presenting graphically violent scenes, the Justin Kurzel directed film is a brutally bloody masterpiece.
The film, adapted to the big screen by accomplished screenplay writer Shaun Grant, revolves around the nineteenth century legendary Australian outlaw and bushranger Ned Kelly. If one were to draw a comparison between Ned Kelly and American outlaws of the same period, Jesse James and possibly William H. Bonney would immediately spring to mind. The latter of the two American outlaws, as I am sure everyone reading this will know, is better known as Billy the Kid.
The story we see unfold in Kurzel’s film is a tragically horrifying tale of dysfunction, alcoholism, physical and verbal abuse. Instead of focusing on the numerous crimes the group perpetrated, we see a vivid portrait of Ned Kelly as an individual.
Orlando Schwerdt and George MacKay play the young Ned Kelly and Ned Kelly, respectively. Both talents, showing distinctly sides to Ned Kelly, play the Australian outlaw at different points in his life. Despite this, the onscreen work we see from Schwerdt and MacKay complement each other perfectly. The sexual ambiguity seen within the gang, the wearing of women’s dresses, is a nod to Kelly gang member Steve Hart having been a crossdresser. Steve Hart is seen here being played by Louis Hewison.
Ellen Kelly, as played by Essie Davis, is known to have “sold” her son Ned to the notorious real-life bandit Harry Power. Power, personified by Academy Award-winning actor Russell Crowe, was a bushranger. Whilst Crowe’s screen presence is brief, he brings a considerable degree of talent to the part which heightens his characterisation significantly. During Ned’s teenage years, he was often used by Power as his accomplice. It is through Power’s guidance that Ned Kelly became so ruthless. His crimes included armed robbery, assault, murder, and various degrees of theft.
Even though his mother sold him to Power, Ned Kelly loved his mother completely, he couldn’t bring himself to kill Sergeant O’Neil. O’Neil, played by Charlie Hunnam, was an English police sergeant who had demanded of Ellen Kelly sexual favours. There is a moment in the film where we see Ned Kelly, as a child, observing his mother pleasuring the police sergeant. Whilst Ellen is unaware the boy is watching them, it’s clear O’Neil noticed he had an audience.
Later, we see Ned become friendly with police Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick at the local nunnery (Shakespearian definition). Nicholas Hoult, seen playing Fitzpatrick, portrays his character is an utterly charming demeanour. Despite the constable displaying certain gentlemanly mannerisms, with Fitzpatrick prone to drinking heavily, this is the kind of man that one would expect to see frequent a nineteenth-century Australian brothel. It was at this brothel that Ned Kelly met and fell hopelessly in love with Mary Hearn. Seen playing Mary Hearn is New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie.
Throughout the entire film, with brilliantly well-shot scenes, Kurzel presents a plausible narrative. Even though numerous directors have attempted and failed to realise an authentic Ned Kelly film, Kurzel is the first filmmaker to achieve what was previously thought impossible. The legend that is Ned Kelly lives in this film.