It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that as long as there have been movies, there have been movies about Ned Kelly. The 19th-century bushranger, born just a few years after Jesse James and Wyatt Earp on a different frontier across the ocean, was the subject of what’s widely considered to be the very first feature-length film: 1906’s The Story Of The Kelly Gang, an hour-long glorification of his exploits that exists today only in fragments, the footage as distorted as the facts. Over the century since, Kelly’s rise to the status of folk hero—the “national symbol of Australia”—coincided with a steady stream of big- and small-screen dramatizations, with everyone from Mick Jagger to Heath Ledger to Aussie footballer Bob Chitty taking on the role. All of which raises the question, Why make another biopic about him? What hasn’t been said already about this famous/infamous outlaw from the bush?
True History Of The Kelly Gang, Justin Kurzel’s at-once grand and grounded new take on Kelly’s endlessly retold life story, finds an answer in the matter of perspective. Despite its title, the movie isn’t any more factually accurate, per se, than any stirringly embellished depiction of his crimes. It’s based, after all, on historical fiction: the bestselling, award-winning novel of the same name by Peter Carey, who wrote from Kelly’s first-person perspective while taking numerous liberties with his biography. What distinguishes this adaptation is the unintuitive focus of its interests. Kurzel, working from a script by Shaun Grant, pushes the dramatized-to-death details of Kelly’s outlaw days to the margins, privileging instead the formative experiences that put him on a collision course with the authorities and destiny. True Story is after not just the man behind the legend but also the traumatized boy, even as it can’t resist viewing his slide into notoriety with some hushed awe, epitomized by the striking early image of a figure on horseback, galloping full speed across a barren landscape.
“Nothing you’re about to see is true,” cops an opening disclaimer, all but the final word disappearing as the full title fades in to replace it. Frames later, a grown Ned (1917’s George MacKay, gaunt like a feral dog, with a boy’s fear and desperation in his eyes) pens a letter to his unborn child, promising that the backstory he’s sharing will “contain no single lie.” It’s a smart way to foreground True History’s position at the intersection of fabrication (Kelly fathered no known children in reality) and deeper truths of psychology and national character. Certainly, no previous movie about Kelly has made the Australia of the late 1800s look so dangerous, squalid, and unglamorous. The film leaps back in time from its opening scene to an exceptionally rough upbringing on the inhospitable terrain of rural Victoria, then still firmly under British control. It’s here that an adolescent Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) lives in a drafty shack with multiple siblings. His father (Ben Corbett), an Irishman brought to Australia as a convict, drinks and stews. This leaves his mother (Essie Davis) to provide for the whole clan, which she does by selling her company, so to speak, to the local lawmen.
A solid half of the movie is devoted to the hardships of Ned’s childhood, each paired with a corresponding reaction shot of the boy absorbing these lessons in the evils of the world. He’s torn between the twisted loyalty his embittered mother instills in him and the no-less-damaging tutelage of various cruel and hardened men, including a copper (Charlie Hunnam) who pays for the pleasure of his short visits and the eccentric outlaw Harry Powers (Russell Crowe), who essentially buys young Ned. It’s a gallery of bad role models and good performances. Davis, best known for playing a parent on the brink in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, speaks every line as though it were venom in her mouth, while still offering glimmers of maternal warmth—the bait in her character’s trap of obligation. (She’s as much a Lady Macbeth figure as the actual Lady Macbeth in Kurzel’s take on The Scottish Play.) Crowe, meanwhile, hasn’t been this effortlessly entertaining in years; you celebrate Harry’s disappearance from Ned’s life but mourn the movie’s loss of his vulgar rapscallion wit.
The implication is that Kelly was a product of his environment—that all the tensions of colonial Australia played out across the narrative of his life. That makes True History Of The Kelly Gang a different kind of myth than the gunslinger variety: It’s the story of a boy waging a losing battle for his own soul against destiny, culture, history, social status, and lineage. Drafted, nay born, into a class war, he’s inherited his parents’ resentments and their position at the bottom of the pecking order. Over and over again, he resists the call of violence thrust on him by those looming over his life. It gives this oft-explored material a fresh charge of tragedy—what we’re watching is really a prophecy fulfilled. And Kurzel, the Aussie director of The Snowtown Murders and the widely maligned Assassin’s Creed movie, invests it with an almost Shakespearean gravity, writ large in the intensity of the relationships and the apocalyptic scale of his imagery, all blood, fire, night, and desolation.
You could say the film is caught between a mythic outlook on Kelly and a desire to demythologize him. Kurzel doesn’t totally resist outlaw cool: When True History leaps abruptly into the manhood years, it’s with the anachronistic squall of a punk anthem, Ned’s suddenly grown body contorting backwards beneath the British flag, like a defiant black sheep of the empire. He earns a very hissable adversary, too, in Nicholas Hoult’s cold-hearted Constable Fitzpatrick—the kind of colonialist villain who will put a gun to a newborn for leverage and then haughtily complain of its crying. Yet it’s with a reluctance that aligns with Ned’s own that the movie finally tilts into the felonious-misadventures passage of the plot. True History relegates the desperado moves to its final 45 minutes, covering them in montage or eliding them entirely. (Never do we see the Kelly gang, formed in the aftermath of a confrontation with the law, knock off any banks.) Nor does the screenplay belabor Kelly’s celebrity; this is not, primarily, another meditation on the public’s love affair with outlaws.
Here, for once, the crime spree is a footnote. True History suggests that the real battle was not with the Victoria police but the forces—human and societal—that conspired to push Kelly onto the path of violence. Which, of course, means that the film truly climaxes when he succumbs to that dark fate, not after. All the same, one can’t help but wonder if the movie could have used another hour—if the ideal version of this true-crime saga would still give us the full epic of Kelly’s life and misdeeds. But Kurzel rallies the troops for a powerhouse ending, arranging a stalemate between man and legend. The spectacular shootout showdown abstracts the action, pitting the fully, famously armored criminal against an army of faceless white silhouettes, while still presenting the unromantic reality of the situation—the pathetic folly of “a man on his way to be hung,” as one of Kelly’s doomed accomplices puts it. The final minutes explicitly address the open question of veracity, implying that this fictionalized version of the story may be no more false than the official one. History, as they say, is written by the winners. And Kelly’s probably remains unwritten, lost to the winds of time and buried under the rubble of hearsay.