Did you know that one of the first feature films ever made chose Ned Kelly as its subject? 1906’s The Story Of The Kelly Gang used more film reel than any other picture had at that point in history, and in the following century the attraction of the infamous Australian outlaw remained strong with a number of different high profile depictions over the years. 2003’s Heath Ledger fronted Ned Kelly is the only one of the bunch that I can say I have ever seen, but there were more than a few things about this latest offering that piqued my interest.
Starring George MacKay in the central role, True History Of The Kelly Gang is a very different, very unique telling of the Ned Kelly story, one that probably isn’t accurate in most respects but definitely one that captured my imagination and fully won me over. Beginning in childhood, this version of the story almost acts more as family drama/tragedy than a crime epic, with the relationship between Ned and his mother Ellen (Essie Davis) feeling like the most integral piece of the puzzle.
I think we’re probably all familiar with most key aspects of the Ned Kelly legend at this point, and the what makes this reimagining so exciting and refreshing to me is that is doesn’t particularly go over most of the well worn ground that some biopic filmmakers might have felt beholden to. There is something very punk rock and anarchic about the movie, which feels much more fitting for a character who often given the ‘Robin Hood treatment’ when it doesn’t feel particularly appropriate. Whether we like it or not, some figures become cult heroes for simply being abrasive, authority resisting baddies, and True History Of The Kelly Gang doesn’t shy away from that.
Other interesting choices, ones that I’m confident have never been made in a Ned Kelly picture before, include a time period ambiguous approach to visuals and a distinctly queer and homoerotic sensibility at several points throughout the narrative. The set dressing for the film stays relatively true to its mid 1800s era, but there is something in the costume aesthetic that puts one in the mind of a more modern production. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it really does. And from Ned’s intimate relationship with his best friend to the choice of his gang to go to battle wearing women’s dresses, the queer undertones that the film evokes make for a super interesting and just overall real cool vibe.
The pacing and lucidity of the film becomes more frantic as we race to a well known conclusion, and the unhinged nature of what unfolds on screen, in the final third in particular, provides a really affecting and captivating experience. It’s all completely wild, but I’ll take wild over another bog standard biopic any day of the week.
I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot recently, but the every member of this quite large cast are absolutely phenomenal. Hot off the heels of 1917, George MacKay gives probably the best performance of his career so far as a different kind of Ned Kelly than I have ever seen before. At times stoic, at other times manic, MacKay takes this version of the character through a whole spectrum of emotions and you are gripped by him from start to finish. There is a searing intensity to the performance, interestingly a similar intensity to his role in 1917, used to remarkably different effect. I’ve been a fan of his ever since Pride, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
The list of stellar supporting performances is almost too long and star studded to give proper justice to, but I’ll try! Amongst the strongest are Nicholas Hoult as Constable Fitzpatrick, Russell Crowe as bushranger Harry Power and Charlie Hunnam as Sergeant O’Neill. Props too, to child actor Orlando Schwerdt who opens the first third of the film brilliantly as the young Ned. It’s a personal pet peeve of mine when transitions from child to adult character don’t seem to work with the two selected performers, but there is a pleasing seamlessness between Schwerdt and Mackay.
I will take a little more time, though, to praise Essie Davis in the role of Ned’s mother, Ellen Kelly. Though the story begins and ends with Ned Kelly, Davis is a constant and looming presence both in the protagonist’s and the audience’s mind, and every scene that she is in crackles with a heightened dramatic tension. From The Babadook to a brief stint in Game Of Thrones, I can’t say that I have seen much of Essie Davis, but I’m making a mental note to rectify that from now on.
Overall, True History Of The Kelly Gang was a really exciting and refreshing surprise for me. There was always a sense that this telling of the legend was going to be a bit different, but I was really pleased and impressed by just how ‘different’ it turned out to be. I do get the feeling that this is going to be a little but like Marmite for many, but guess what; I love Marmite, and I love this too!