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Non-Review Review: True History of the Kelly Gang

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

It’s very lucid,” notes a supporting character of the eponymous text.

The young teacher has just read the introductory paragraph of a letter that outlaw Ned Kelly has prepared for his son, a way of sharing the truth of events with his heir. Kelly will subsequently bind the paper to himself, wrapping it to his midsection beneath plates of metal armour. That same teacher will later ruminate on the blood-stained documents, dismissing Kelly’s story as nothing more than “the ravings of a madman.” Perhaps both statements are true. Perhaps the letter is more true for the fact that it is incoherent and existential poetry.

True History of the Kelly Gang prefaces its title with a warning to the audience that “nothing you’re about to see is true.” The word “true” then serves as a bridge from that preamble into the movie itself, lingering on the screen long enough to be incorporated into the no-frills titlecard for True History of the Kelly Gang. Truth and fiction linger and intersect, contradictions rippling through the finished film. Watching True History of the Kelly Gang, one gets a sense of how these contradictory statements can each be accurate in their own way.

True History of the Kelly Gang is both a vivid waking dream and a complete narrative mess, simultaneously.

True History of the Kelly Gang is a visually arresting sensory feast, as one might expect from director Justin Kurzel. Kurzel established himself with a rich and haunting cinematic adaptation of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, reteaming with the duo for the much less successful Assassin’s Creed. Kurzel has always had a strong eye, and an ability to filter the world through that eye. His films tend towards the visually striking, nightmares conjured into being and projected on screen.

As one might expect, True History of the Kelly Gang is packed with distinctive and memorable images, which linger long after the film itself. Dead, gnarled trees reach up from a dead earth towards a heaven they shall never touch, the camera talking a lone figure riding through this memory of a forest. Outlaws stalk through the wilderness in drag, like punk rockers lost in time. Outposts of civilisation that are built as reinforced bunkers against an uncaring world. Although entirely predictable to anybody with even a passing knowledge of the source history, the closing image is suitably unsettling.

Kurzel frames True History of the Kelly Gang as something closer to a punk rock rave than a period epic. Visually, there is something slightly subversive in the way that True History of the Kelly Gang positions its outback western elements. The basic narrative trappings of True History of the Kelly Gang are familiar, fitting comfortably within the framework of Australia’s approach to the genre in films like The PropositionSweet Country or The Nightingale. At one point, Ned receives a harsh awakening at what he believes is to be a simple cattle sale with the man he assumes is to be his new stepfather.

Harry Power very curtly explains the way that the world works to his young ward and soon-to-be-accomplice. “There’s no friend. There’s no cattle. There’s only us.” Repeatedly over the course of the film, Ned is confronted with the idea that an environment as hostile as the Australia wilderness inevitably produces two-legged predators. Striking up a relationship with a British constable, Ned muses, “I never met a person like you who didn’t want something from me or my family.” This is all very much expected within the framework of an Australian western.

However, there’s something slightly more interesting happening beneath the surface of True History of the Kelly Gang. The film seems as interested in picking at conventional masculinity as crudely celebrating it. This is a hyper-masculine story of rugged men forged from a hostile world, but who wear dresses into battle. (“They’re afraid of crazy,” muses one of Ned’s associates of the authorities.) Ned himself grapples with ideals of masculinity, most notably in the way that he navigates his relationship with his parents. (The damsel in the red dress introduced fleeing through the forest is later revealed to be Ned’s crossdressing father.)

Unfortunately, True History of the Kelly Gang is a mess. The film feels like it has been carved up like some of the family’s beef or lamb cutlets, resulting in a film that has been hacked to pieces as readily as young Ned cuts up a stolen cow to feed his starving family. The film was adapted by Shaun Grant from Peter Carey’s dense and literary novel of the same name. That weight presses down on the film. It’s hard to determine whether the structural and narrative issues with True History of the Kelly Gang originated in the script or resulted from the edit, but they are fundamental.

True History of the Kelly Gang occasionally feels like a prestige miniseries desperately cut down to fit within the confines of a two-hour film. Celebrities wander through the film, appearing in a handful of scenes as pivotal characters before disappearing back into the ether; Russell Crowe appears as an older outlaw, Charlie Hunnam as a bullying police constable, and Nicholas Hoult as another bullying police constable. These characters appear, draw the audience towards them, and then just as quickly disappear. (Essie Davis is, along with George MacKay, the film’s most constant presence – and it’s greatest performer.)

There is a sense in which at least some of this is deliberate. The film makes a number of conscious choices to marginalise these characters. The fate of outlaw Harry Power is dismissed within a few lines of voiceover narration. The pay-off to Ned’s final confrontation with Constable Fitzpatrick is kept pointedly off-screen. There is a sense in which this might actually be the point of the exercises, to capture some of the random and arbitrary workings of the real world, where endings are seldom neat and where people just drift into out of one another’s orbits.

This does not make the end result any less frustrating. It doesn’t help that the application of this internal logic is remarkably inconsistent. While several key plot and character beats are consigned to crude voice-over to save time, other key details are clumsily seeded and then repeated. The parentage of Ned’s stepson is explicitly stated in what appears to be ADR, only to subsequently be played as a dramatic revelation within a few scenes. The film seems to make that choice for fear that the audience might not be able to follow along otherwise.

All of this creates the impression that the film is a bullet-point summary of a much more impressive work. True History of the Kelly Gang is memorable and striking, but also disjointed and uneven. Much like its central character, it feels like a shadow of something greater.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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