Review: True History of the Kelly Gang (2019)

Directed by: Justin Kurzel | 124 minutes | biography, crime, drama | Actors: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Thomasin McKenzie, Sean Keenan, Earl Cave, Marlon Williams, Louis Hewison, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe, Josephine Blazier, Jacob Collins-Levy, Ben Corbett, Asmara Feik, Claudia Karvan, Markella Kavenagh, Jillian Nguyen

Money is scarce with the Irish Kelly family, who live in the Australian outback of the 19th century. When the family’s father is convicted of stealing a cow and eventually dies in prison, the prospects for a better life are virtually nil. Mother Ellen (Essie Davis) finds it difficult to take care of her children and is desperate for ways to make money. To famed highwayman Harry Power (Russell Crowe), she entrusts her 12-year-old son Ned, who will serve as his personal assistant. However, Ned soon comes into conflict with the law. He is arrested and imprisoned for several years.

After spending much of his life in jail, now-grown Ned (George MacKay) returns home to discover that not much has changed. His mother is engaged to a man barely older than himself, his younger brother and his friends take to the thieves’ path every night and the family is constantly harassed by the British overlords. Determined to stay on the right track, Ned is led back to violence and crime when his mother is arrested. Full of hatred and anger, Ned gathers a group of rebels to go to war with the British, who he blames for everything that happened to him. Bloodshed is now inevitable.

Ned Kelly is considered the greatest Australian outlaw of all time. His story has been told on the big screen countless times and was even the subject of the world’s first ever feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906). Big names like Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger have played Kelly in the past. Who plays Kelly now is actor George MacKay, in Justin Kurzel’s ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’. After ‘Macbeth’ (2015) and ‘Assassin’s Creed’ (2016), Kurzel returns to Australia with this film to present another dark chapter in the history of his homeland. Kurzel managed to do this well before with ‘Snowtown’ (2011), but with ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ he is less lucky.

The first segment of ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’, subtitled ‘Boy’, is the strongest part of the movie. The focus of the story is most evident during this part, as are the characters’ objectives. After this, however, the film quickly becomes overloaded. The addition of a few new characters and subplots quickly make the film cluttered. The decision to skip a few years in the story does not work and the film is increasingly provided with an unnecessary voice-over on that point. The most important aspect of the film is Ned Kelly, but the title character does not do much good after the first part of the film.

Perhaps Australian audiences will get more out of the film, but for those who have little knowledge of Ned Kelly, the film does not offer a clear view of the historical figure. George MacKay is clearly doing his best in the role, but Kelly is simply not interesting as a character here. His transformation from child to adult remains completely out of the picture and therefore as a viewer you know very little about him. His morality also remains unclear. Is he a villain? Is he a misunderstood folk hero? It seems like the movie wants it both ways, disregarding the fact that this is inconsistent. ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ is somewhat sustained by the acting of George MacKay and Essie Davis,

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