Justin Kurzel on True History of the Kelly Gang: 'It's about how we create these legends and these myths'

Justin Kurzel on True History of the Kelly Gang: 'It's about how we create these legends and these myths'

Australian director discusses his latest project, which takes on Peter Carey's novel about the mythic 19th century Australian outlaw

After his grisly 2011 serial killer debut Snowtown, Australian director Justin Kurzel has explored the psychology of violence in both classic literature (adapting Shakespeare's Macbeth) and popular culture (video game franchise Assassin's Creed). So his return to something 'more personal' with the hugely stylish True History of the Kelly Gang, taking on Peter Carey's novel about the mythic 19th century Australian outlaw, feels entirely logical.

The film begins with the title, only for the word 'true' to be scrubbed out. 'When Peter wrote the book [in 2000], I think people in Australia really did believe that he was proclaiming this was the true history,' Kurzel explains. 'The irony of the title was being completely lost. We're openly saying this is a fictitious piece. It's inspired by the real character but it's a riff on truth and a riff on re-writing history. It's about how we create these legends and these myths.'

With 1917's George MacKay cast, he follows a long line of actors to play Kelly, including Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger. To Australians, he's as much a part of folklore as Robin Hood for the Brits. 'You grew up eating a Ned Kelly pie and going to see his armour,' says Kurzel. 'There was a confusing relationship with him because you were going, "He's an outlaw" and yet you were visiting him like he was a hero. So there's always been a very uncomfortable, awkward relationship that we've had with him.'

With Kurzel's film tracing his path from urchin to authority-defying gang leader, Kurzel has gathered a hugely impressive cast around MacKay, including his own wife Essie Davis (as Kelly's mother), Nicholas Hoult and Russell Crowe as Harry Power, an influential figure in Kelly's early years. 'We threw everything at Russell to inspire him to take the role. Fortunately, he really understood and saw why we wanted him. He was great. He contributed songs, grew this massive beard and was pretty bloody loyal to the project.'

One of the most striking elements is the landscapes Kurzel and his cinematographer Ari Wegner capture. Filming in Winton – 'Kelly country' – they also shot in Marysville, Victoria, which was devastated by Bush fires back in 2009. Given the recent blazes that Australia has suffered, the sight of Kelly riding through gnarled trees feels almost prophetic. 'There is something very intimidating about the Australian landscape. Something very wild and untameable,' sighs Kurzel. 'It's devastating what's happened there at the moment.'

Still, Kurzel is keen to continue making films there. He's just shot the first two episodes of the forthcoming Paramount/Apple TV production of Shantaram, based on the epic book by Gregory David Roberts, an Australian bank robber who fled to India. Beyond that, with 13-year-old twin girls to look after, he's not sure what's next. He's no longer the nascent filmmaker desperate to make an impression. 'I'm not as anxious as I once was,' he smiles. 'I want to make sure when I do make something that I know I'm making it for a really strong reason.'

True History of the Kelly Gang is on general release from Fri 28 Feb.

True History of the Kelly Gang

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • 2h 4min
  • 18
  • Directed by: Justin Kurzel
  • Cast: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt
  • UK release: 28 February 2020

The tale of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly (Schwerdt as a boy, MacKay as a man) and the making of his legend. Vibrant, arresting stuff, more pop art portrait than chapter and verse, with outstanding performances, an astonishing eye for detail and a raw authenticity.