Sometimes, old can be new again. It isn’t always what story being told, but how it’s being told. In the case of True History of the Kelly Gang, filmmaker Justin Kurzel is taking a unique and almost punk rock approach to the classic Ned Kelly legend. It’s a brash and undeniably different way of telling this story. For some, it will be strange and an immediate turn off. For others, it will be the first time that the Kelly tale has truly come alive. Hitting Digital and VOD on Friday, it at least has the distinction of being unlike anything else hitting screens.
The film is a look at the legend of the Australian outlaw. Taking place in the English ruled badlands of colonial Australia, where the Irish endure must endure their violent subjugation, Ned Kelly (Orlando Schwerdt as a child and George MacKay as an adult) will come to oppose them. As a child, he learns that he comes from a long line of Irish rebels, known as the Sons of Sieve. They were a violent army of bandits, who were honored for terrifying their oppressors back in Ireland, as well as known to cross dress in battle. Taught by surrogate father Harry Power (Russell Crowe) in the ways of crime, Ned hardens quickly, fueled also by the abuse of his mother (Essie Davis) at the hands of Sgt. O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam). As an adult, Ned recruits a wild bunch of warriors to bring back those rebellious ways. Whether he realizes it or not, he’s on the verge of making history. Through it all, we see Ned’s life through a decidedly postmodern gaze. Justin Kurzel directs a screenplay by Shaun Grant, based on the novel by Peter Carey. Jed Kurzel provides the score, while cinematography is by Ari Wegner. Rounding out the cast are the likes of Nicholas Hoult, Thomasin McKenzie, and more.
A rather unique visual eye, a palpable sense of angry energy, and some interesting performances set this one apart. George MacKay gives an intense and manic turn as the title character, though it’s not quite as gonzo as it otherwise could be. Russell Crowe, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, and Charlie Hunnam are solid in supporting roles, while Orlando Schwerdt and his intense stare actually shine as the younger version of Ned Kelly. More so than the actions on display, it’s the ideas from Kurzel and Grant that remain. The Kelly Gang reminds you of the crazed Droogs from A Clockwork Orange, while the lack of period garb and occasional modern touches give everything a surreal feel. A reliably strong score from Jed Kurzel, as well as soon striking cinematography from Ari Wegner ensure that the below the line elements prop everything else in the movie up.
True History of the Kelly Gang is an ambitious effort. Sometimes, the fuels added by Kurzel to the fire is a real boon. Other times, it’s a lot of energy that still doesn’t add up to a lot. The good does outweigh the bad, however, so it’s not hard to appreciate what’s being attempted here. The first act and the back end aren’t quite as consistently interesting as the middle portion, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever be bored here, and that’s a nice little ace in the hole for a period piece. At just over two hours long, you don’t want to lose your audience early on. Interestingly, this reminded me almost more of A Knight’s Tale (in very broad strokes) than the film Ned Kelly, both of which starred Heath Ledger. It’s very much it’s own thing, however, so keep that in mind.
This weekend, audiences who are into revisionist history could very well like what Justin Kurzel is offering up with True History of the Kelly Gang. This truly won’t be for everyone, but if your sensibilities fit what Kurzel has attempted, you may well be blown away. Especially if you tend to like Kurzel’s indie outings, this has a lot of potential to win you over. Give the movie a shot and see what you think…
Be sure to check out True History of the Kelly Gang, on Digital and VOD this Friday!
(Photos courtesy of IFC Films)