True History of the Kelly Gang

Australian director Justin Kurzel does the Ned Kelly story justice in this uneven but daring film starring George Mackay as the legendary outlaw

Film Review by Joseph Walsh | 27 Feb 2020
  • The True History of the Kelly Gang
Film title: True History of the Kelly Gang
Director: Justin Kurzel
Starring: George Mackay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe, Thomasin McKenzie
Release date: 28 Feb
Certificate: 15

Justin Kurzel’s latest feature is a punk-fuelled, post-truth account of the life of 19th century Australia’s most notorious outlaw, Ned Kelly. Leagues apart from the formally unadventurous 2003 Heath Ledger version, Kurzel’s film is daring but uneven, using the Booker Prize-winning novel by Peter Carey as a launchpad for Shaun Grant’s script.

Forgoing the traditional tropes of the genre, we get a feverish exploration of myth-building, told with extraordinary expressionistic flair and style that dismisses the baggy nonsense of most biopics. The first half of the film deals with Kelly’s childhood (Orlando Schwerdt), as he suffers at the hands of everyone he encounters. From the local lawman Sergeant O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam), who forces sexual favours from Kelly’s mother (Essie Davies), to the violence he witnesses from his surrogate father Harry Power (Russell Crowe), Kelly gets a rough deal.

As an adult, he’s played by George MacKay, who brings a vulnerability and ferocity that we haven’t seen in his performances before. He’s a crossbreed of Sid Vicious and Billy the Kid, with the rippling physique of a bare-knuckle boxer but a glass-brittle psyche – it’s a terrifying combination. Returning home, Ned wrangles his cross-dressing brothers and off they go, rebelling against the tyranny of the British.

After Assassin’s Creed, Kurzel shows himself to be more at home here. It’s a woozy, ethereal film, questioning the slippery nature of truth at its heart.