Toronto Film Review: ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’

After multiple failed attempts to capture the legend of Aussie outlaw Ned Kelly on film, Justin Kurzel's enthralling, unruly vision finally gets it right.

Director:
Justin Kurzel
With:
George Mackay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe, Thomasin McKenzie

2 hours 4 minutes

Back in 1970, Tony Richardson’s “Ned Kelly” hit upon a neat idea: What if you got an honest-to-God rock star, Mick Jagger, to play Australia’s most notorious 19th-century folk hero? A neat idea is all it was, though, and the listless, unconfidently acted movie that resulted was duly forgotten. Nearly half a century later, however, Justin Kurzel’s thrilling new take on the legend gives Kelly some glam-rock swagger without any need for stunt casting. Lithe and volatile and recklessly stylized to the hilt, “True History of the Kelly Gang” has moves like Jagger, but a head still teeming with language and history. Adapted from Peter Carey’s Man Booker-winning 2000 novel, Kurzel’s roughhousing, ripely acted interpretation does full justice to the book’s rugged dirt-poetry vernacular and rich biographical particulars, while staging Kelly’s criminal rise and fall as a vision all its own: a wildly gyrating sensory assault of blood, velvet and strobe lights.

In its brooding tonal menace and the brute beauty of its aesthetic, the result is very much of a piece with Kurzel’s first two films, 2011’s severe true-crime story “The Snowtown Murders” and 2015’s ambient, cut-to-the-bone “Macbeth” — and a welcome career reset after the game-over muddle of 2016’s tortured “Assassin’s Creed.”

Just as the director’s Shakespeare adaptation split audiences with its visceral, text-shredding expressionism, his roaring, head-butting approach to “True History of the Kelly Gang” won’t be for everyone. Still, most can surely agree it’s a corrective to the more blandly gung-ho biopic stylings of 2003’s Heath Ledger-starring “Ned Kelly,” which pitched the bushwhacking, cop-killing outlaw as little more than a twinkle-eyed rogue; Kurzel’s film considers his madness and morality, and grants him a harder-won dignity.

A soaring, dreamy aerial shot at the outset sets the tone for what is to come, as Ari Wegner’s camera picks out a scarlet-clad Kelly, bolting on horseback through scorched snarls of charcoal trees, like a dribble of blood streaking its way across the land. For a second, the vista looks Leanian in its splendor, until the full ruin of the landscape sinks in, along with the torn eccentricity of Kelly’s outfit: a woman’s chiffon gown with the color and sweep of a military redcoat. Kurzel will repeatedly undercut the ennobling grandeur of epic filmmaking with such disorienting details and disconnects. This Kelly is a curious, intractable figure from the off, when he’s played as a youth by mesmerizingly off-kilter newcomer Orlando Schwerdt; that alien quality remains even as he grows into the more buff, conventionally commanding form of George Mackay.

Where Carey’s novel was in 13 sections, screenwriter Shaun Grant (“The Snowtown Murders,” “Berlin Syndrome”) has opted for just three — “Boy,” “Man,” “Monitor” — of increasing atmospheric derangement. The first is the plottiest, establishing the young Kelly’s complex family loyalties and the burnt-in origins of his anti-authoritarian spirit. His Irish father Red (Ben Corbett) is tormented to the grave by less-than-upstanding lawman Sergeant O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam); 12-year-old Ned inherits the grudge. His mother Ellen (Essie Davis) is a hard, proud matriarch, whose wounded love for her late husband is perhaps too intensely carried over to her eldest son; as he grows into adulthood, she both demands his loyalty and shames his ambition. In a film boasting several tremendous performances, a virulently seething Davis gives the best of them: Wheedly-voiced one minute, coldly torrential the next, her Ellen is a mercurial knot of grief, rage and sex, darkening and corrupting Kelly’s family-first revenge mission even from a distance.

After an education in the laws of the wild — and the way of the gun — from loose-cannon bushranger Harry Power (a wonderfully grizzled, gamy Russell Crowe), Kelly resolves to defend and elevate his stained family name the violent way. Forming the eponymous Gang with his young brother Dan (Earl Cave) and two nothing-to-lose friends, he also encounters a new colonial nemesis in Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), a tart, cruel police constable who seduces Kelly’s sister Kate (Josephine Blazier) — and seemingly, in one extraordinary dialogue scene prickling with queer, witching-hour energy, Kelly himself.

Hoult, leering and louchely authorative even when clothed in nothing but sock suspenders, is easily the best he’s ever been; the passive-aggressive erotic chemistry between him and Mackay’s brash, combustible adult Kelly lends Kurzel’s film a most unexpected sensuality even as it tumbles into all-guns-blazing action. Yet the closer the storytelling veers to straight-up genre thrills, the more operatic and expressionistic the filmmaking gets.

The famous climactic shootout at Glenrowan is envisioned, rather like the final battle in Kurzel’s “Macbeth,” as a fevered nightmare sequence with little sense of spatial reality. This time, however, the screen isn’t saturated in chemical orange, but multiply pierced with white-hot beams as bullets penetrate the darkness of Kelly’s hideout, building to a near seizure-inducing lightshow. It’s the high-impact pièce de résistance in Wegner’s otherwise earthy, blood-and-mud-smeared view of the lawless Outback, which never quite gives in to postcard panoramas: Even the sky has an angry, bilious tint throughout.

The film’s world-building is at once utterly immersive and given to striking stabs of artifice. Alice Babidge’s freely era-mixing costumes, in particular, are nothing short of ingenious, often binding Kelly in tight, androgynous silhouettes that give him a lanky frontman strut, and that’s before he discovers the enemy-startling powers of genderqueer battle garb. In “True History of the Kelly Gang,” black lace takes on the strength and solidity of armor, and one of history’s most celebrated outlaws finally gets the film he deserves: one that grants him both macho magnetism and the deep, abiding strangeness on which a lasting cult is built. “Write your own history, for you are my future now,” Kelly’s voiceover instructs his daughter toward the film’s close; Kurzel’s spellbinding if not-so-true history takes the same advice.

Related:

Toronto Film Review: 'True History of the Kelly Gang'

Reviewed at Channel 4 screening room, London, Aug. 23, 2019. (In Toronto Film Festival — Gala Presentations.) Running time: 124 MIN.

Production: (Australia-U.K.) A Screen Australia, La Cinefacture, Film4 presentation of a Porchlight Films, Daybreak Pictures production in association with Film Victoria, Asia Film Investment Group, Memento Films International. (International sales: Memento Films International, Paris.) Producers: Hal Vogel, Liz Watts, Justn Kurzel, Paul Ranford. Executive producers: David Aukin, Vincent Sheehan, Peter Carey, Daniel Battsek, Sue Bruce-Smith, Sam Lavender, Emilie Georges, Naima Abed, Raphaël Perchet, Brad Feinstein, David Gross, Shaun Grant.

Crew: Director: Justin Kurzel. Screenplay: Shaun Grant, adapted from the novel by Peter Carey. Camera (color): Ari Wegner. Editor: Nick Fenton. Music: Jed Kurzel.

With: George Mackay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe, Thomasin McKenzie, Sean Keenan, Earl Cave, Marlon Williams, Louis Hewison.

More Film

  • Jack Kehoe dead

    Jack Kehoe, 'Serpico' and 'Midnight Run' Actor, Dies at 85

    Jack Kehoe, best known for his roles in the Al Pacino-led crime drama “Serpico” and “Midnight Run,” died on Jan. 10 at a nursing home in Los Angeles. He was 85. The actor suffered a debilitating stroke in 2015, which left him inactive in recent years. Kehoe also appeared in several Academy Award-winning films during [...]

  • The Last Full Measure

    'The Last Full Measure': Film Review

    The story of William Pitsenbarger, a U.S. Air Force Pararescue medic who risked his life in Vietnam to aid his comrades, as well as the decades-later efforts of fellow vets to see him posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, is undeniably moving — which goes a long way toward explaining how Todd Robinson enlisted an [...]

  • The Grand Grandmaster

    Hong Kong and China Box Office to Take Separate Directions at Chinese New Year

    In the more than six months that protest movements have rocked Hong Kong, a whole range of business sectors have become color-coded, as both Beijing-loyal blue elements and yellow pro-democracy forces have weaponized the economy. Companies on the front line include leading bank HSBC, airline Cathay Pacific and even the subway operator MTRC. Effects range [...]

  • Parasite

    'Parasite' Puts Modern Spin on Film's Long History of Haves vs Have-Nots

    Every filmmaker hopes to make a good movie, but sometimes the impact is bigger than expected. Neon’s “Parasite” is one example of a 2019 film hitting a nerve. Writer-director Bong Joon Ho’s film has been praised for its originality and daring shifts in tone. It also has resonance due to its subject matter: the gap [...]

  • 1917 Movie

    How the '1917' Special Effects Makeup Team Created Realistic Dead Bodies

    Prior to working on “1917,” special effects artist Tristan Versluis had designed no more than five or six corpses. But Sam Mendes, director of the WWI drama, which has garnered 10 Oscar nominations, needed Versluis, who picked up one of those noms in the hair and makeup category, to create 30 corpses and dead horses, [...]

  • Olivia Wilde Booksmart BTS

    Olivia Wilde on Her Move From Acting to Directing With 'Booksmart'

    Olivia Wilde began acting in 2004 when she was 20 years old. It never occurred to her that she might also enjoy stepping behind the lens. “I always wanted to make movies and be a part of the moviemaking process,” she tells me. “I always assumed acting was the way in, because for many young [...]

  • Donna Rotunno, Harvey WeinsteinHarvey Weinstein court

    Harvey Weinstein's Defense Focuses on Emails in Bid to Discredit Accusers

    Harvey Weinstein’s defense attorney showed jurors friendly emails between their client and his accusers in an opening statement on Wednesday, arguing that the accusers are trying to “have it both ways.” Attorney Damon Cheronis asked the jury to rely on their “God-given New York City common sense,” and to find that the women had consensual [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content