Cinema Review: True History of the Kelly Gang | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, June 4th, 2020  

True History of the Kelly Gang

Studio: IFC Films
Directed by Justin Kurzel

Apr 24, 2020 Web Exclusive
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“The past is not dead, it is not even past” reads graffiti on the sign for Glenrowan Inn, one of the key sites in the history of Ned Kelly. William Faulkner’s quote is a nod to the epigraph in Peter Carey’s award-winning novel from which this film is liberally adapted, and the key to the story.

After all, reinterpreting history, finding a way to interrogate ourselves and how we got here is what a good legend is for. Like Carey, that’s exactly what Australian director Justin Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant are up to, picking apart the legend of a national icon and stitching it back together in familiar and yet entirely unfamiliar shapes. Whether they’re successful is a different matter.

There are two main problems holding back an arrestingly shot, well-acted film. The first comes with the structure. In true biopic form, we roll through Kelly’s (George MacKay) life, unfolding in a simple three act progression, split between childhood, adulthood and the making of the legend. It’s perfectly functional and full of captivating scenes as we travel from a breadline childhood in a broken-down hut in the middle of nowhere through a tyrannical justice system full of humiliation and abuse, and into the fight back.

Weighting is the main failing. The final act is a rushed affair, throwing away the rise and fall of the Kelly gang in exposition and allusion. The steady build up ends squandered, cast aside in a rush for a finale that plays out more as a disembodied highlight than a natural conclusion to any arc. The siege at Glenrowan is a brilliant piece of visual filmmaking and a poor example of storytelling.

The taste for the immediate over the whole is also the root of the other problem. For such a bold take on the Kelly story, it does far too much surface skating. In this telling, there’s a subversion of masculinity linked to cross-dressing, a trait that also sits beside revolutionary fervour as the Irish immigrants push back against their English overlords.

But there is no meaningful exploration of these ideas. They are spoken and seen and left there, floating across the top of a stylish punk rock production that is a little too into its own hipness to realise it hasn’t said all that much.

It’s a shame when Kurzel has drawn a range of strong performances, especially from MacKay and Essie Davis as Kelly’s scarily committed mother, backed up by decent turns from a range of recognizable figures including Russell Crowe, Charlie Hunnam and Nicholas Hoult. Visually, it’s a striking experience as well, the bleak grandeur of the Australian countryside stretching out across aerial shots showing life can be confined even amongst so much open space.

None of this is to say True History of the Kelly Gang is a bad film. It’s often good, sometimes exceptionally so. It simply fails to deliver on its promise, slipping into an intriguing, sporadically invigorating experience that isn’t quite what it could have been.

Author rating: 6/10

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