We all grow up learning about not only our heroes, but of our villains as well. Sometimes these “villain’s” can actually become heroes to those who follow and worship them – as is the ‘Robin Hood effect’ where by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, they are greatly admired people in history. Depending on where it is you grow up – is whom you learn about. So while a greater part of my growing up was in the U.S., I learned of people like Jessie James, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, and Bonnie & Clyde etc. While ‘down-under’ in Australia it seems they had a ‘villain’ all of their very own. Ned Kelly and The Kelly Gang. I know some of the films done about these characters have taken a lot of liberties when it comes to facts, so when I found out this one is based upon a book written by Peter Carey – who describes the book as being ‘true’ – with a big emphasis on such as it being in the title as well, it was a bit jolting to see the “TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG” open with the statement: “Nothing you’re about to see is true.”
Delving into the first hour of the movie which takes a total focus on Ned’s childhood. Young Ned (Orlando Sschwerdt) as the eldest son of the Ellen Kelly (Essie Davis) and John Kelly (Ben Corbett), who are some of those unlucky Irish who were transported to Australia as convicts. British Sergeant O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam) not only arrests John for stealing a cow which Ned actually stole, but has been with Ellen this whole time as well. The whole episode leaves Ned to start a spiral that seems to follow him from this point on. In-between Ellen resorts to whatever she must do to keep all her children alive and in steps Harry Power (Russell Crowe) with whom Ellen sends Ned away with to supposedly “make him a man,” but has essentially sold him to Power. Power tries to force Ned to kill O’Neil as revenge, and Ned falls short as he shoots him, but almost as an accident, and doesn’t kill him – but O’Neil then hauls him off to jail. Yes, this is just the first hour which is so crazily portrayed, it’s almost as if they are all going through some psychosis or another and we are just along for the ride trying to keep up with it all.
We then fast-forward ten years for the even more graphic second half of the film with a now grown up and out of jail Ned (George MacKay). Ned returns home to find his mother shacked up with a guy only a few years older than himself, George King (Marlon Williams) a drifter from California no less, who proclaims he is going to be Ned’s new father – he is also a horse thief and has recruited Ned’s younger brother Dan (Earl Cave), and Dan’s friend Steve (Louis Hewison) to help out. Their ‘signature’ is of the gang is wearing women’s dresses, which Ned finds and goes on a rail to return the dresses. In doing so, he is suddenly with Mary (Thomasin McKenzie), who he falls for immediately even though she has a baby that isn’t his. And in one of the more odd scenes, and there are many, he meets and almost becomes friends with another British law office, Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), whose character is hard to differentiate from his childhood nemesis, Sergeant O’Neill.
This whole film is akin to a whirlwind or a high speed hurricane where you find yourself in the center of and can’t get out. I can best describe it as an Insane Historical Fantasy – with a punk rock soundtrack that upon hearing at the beginning, I almost thought Ned was going to be a 1970’s punk rocker, an Australian Sid Vicious of sort, because of it. After doing my own little piece of research on Ned Kelly and his gang, I find out he was known most of all for what made him most famous, as the bushranger who wore a suit of bulletproof iron during his final shootout with the police. While this is shown in the film, and despite the historical setting, context and characters, it by no means represents or even intentionally tries to tell a historically respectable, let alone accurate portrayal of Ned Kelly.
Understandably I’m very split on this film, but let me at least give credit where credit is due. The acting all around is great, the cast is all fine in what they’re given, stand outs include; Orlando Schwerdt as Young Ned, Russell Crowe, Essie Davis – whom I will say totally creeped me out and I will admit to not really having known who she was at all – turns out she is the directors wife as well. Thomasin McKenzie and Nicholas Hoult did okay enough, but again, it was as if Hunnam & Hoult were interchangeable as their roles were so similar and both distasteful characters. I haven’t got many complaints about the other performers, only that they weren’t given much for me to be invested in despite the film’s insistence I empathize with Ned. I believe anyone of a similar age to when the real Ned Kelly died (25) could play Ned, yet despite the material not being compelling enough to decide if Ned’s actions be justified or vilified, it’s not going to sway how anyone views the character be it hero or righteous criminal, but perhaps intensify it as it did make me personally want to read about him. Mackay is as fine as ever with what he does, yet his lack of a beard that’s always characterized Ned Kelly fails me to even buy him as Ned completely.
Ultimately, it’s greatest weakness is it’s development of Ned as an outlaw. Once Ned is outside the law, his extremist views to the law and state government take hold even though you feel as though Ned wishes he could’ve lived an honest life for his supposed child who from what I’ve now read, never existed. Yet his fall from honest life is fast and doesn’t pick up much weight when his ‘movement’ builds compared to the way the scenes leading up to it do. There’s a lot to admire about this film, yet I don’t think it’ll have a overall appeal to many. I can see it being praised by some, yet ridiculed by others.
With it’s violence and rough sex and language scenes, to say it isn’t recommended to the ‘faint of heart’ would be an understatement.
Review Screening link: Courtesy of IFC Films
“TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG” IS NOW AVAILABLE FOR RENT/PURCHASE ON AMAZON