After lacklustre reviews of his 2016 adaptation of Assassin’s Creed, Australian-born director Justin Kurzel is back, this time returning to his roots with a story about one of the most notorious criminals down under.
Born in the Australian outback in the 1850s, Ned Kelly (George MacKay) knew struggle from the start. The third of eight children of poor Irish immigrant parents, he was left to bring up the brood after the death of his father, while his mother Ellen (Essie Davis) welcomed strange men into their home to bring in some cash and company.
As a teenager, Ned was selected by violent bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe) to escort him as his apprentice, learning his tricks and ways of earning a living. Over time, Ned outgrows Harry’s control and steps out on his own, befriending Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) along the way. But after a bloody confrontation at the Kelly family home, where Ellen is arrested for her involvement in the brawl, Ned vows to take down every last policeman in his way to avenge his mother’s imprisonment.
Based on Peter Carey‘s historical fiction novel of the same name, this is a fantastical retelling of known facts. Kelly, a bushranger, outlaw, gang leader and convicted murderer, roamed the Australian forests in the late 19th century, eluding capture for two years before donning a suit of bulletproof armour during his last battle with police in 1880. What Carey and Kurzel bring to the story is a lightning bolt of punk, straight through the centre and into Kelly’s already anti-establishment heart. With a screeching score and sound effects layered over MacKay’s hollering, all while dressed in flouncy pink frocks smeared in mud, this version of Ned feels like a 21st century bend on the original.
MacKay, who’s previously impressed audiences in titles like Pride, Captain Fantastic, and recently award-nominated 1917, shows again just how strong a lead he is. Ned’s energy buzzes off his skin like electricity, as MacKay tears from one scene into the next. Supported by some huge names, including Crowe, Hoult, Charlie Hunnam and Jojo Rabbit‘s Thomasin McKenzie, George is the one you can’t take your eyes off of – that’s the power of portraying someone so outrageous, I guess!
Shot around Victoria, Kelly’s birthplace, Kurzel gives us a taste of the deprivation our lead grew up in – wide shots survey the dust and grass and contrast with tight, dark, grimy shots of the family’s hut. This claustrophobic feeling is set to high during the famous brawl that leads to Ellen’s arrest, with the camera moving quickly between characters, focusing closely on their faces and swinging arms (and weapons). Again, we’re kept close to Ned and his brothers as they prepare to fight the police one last time, holed up in a makeshift bunker, the light flickering above as they peak out through slats in the wood. This close proximity to Kelly doesn’t make us sympathise with him, as such; more, we start to understand where he’s come from and the desolation he must feel to ‘be the man of the house’, even if that includes dying in the process to prove himself.
Wild, unflinchingly violent and full of pace, True History of the Kelly Gang is a ride from the start. Kurzel may just be back on form, with the help of his stellar cast.