True History of the Kelly Gang (4 stars)

True History of the Kelly Gang

Justin Kurzel helms a vibrant, arresting take on Ned Kelly and his crew, based on the Booker Prize-winning novel

Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, Macbeth) makes a striking return to form after the lacklustre Assassin's Creed, and brings his astonishing eye for detail to the oft-told story of notorious outback outlaw Ned Kelly.

In adapting Peter Carey's multi-part Booker Prize-winning novel, screenwriter Shaun Grant splits the film into three chapters: 'Boy', 'Man' and 'Monitor'. First, Kurzel takes a swift gallop through the troubled childhood of young Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) whose poverty-stricken home, English oppressors (embodied by Charlie Hunnam and, later, Nicholas Hoult as wilfully cruel colonial soldiers) and difficult relationship with his necessarily opportunistic mother (a wonderful Essie Davis) shape the man he would become. As that man, someone determined to make a name for himself whatever the cost, George MacKay is outstanding, blending a sharp-edged, cynical worldliness with the naked vulnerability of a person who knows he can never go home.

As Ned strives to make his fortune on the wrong side of the law, his audacious exploits turn the film into a punky, defiant study of an icon, capturing his cocky swagger with feverish intensity. An opening disclaimer that, despite its commanding title, nothing about this story should actually be taken as truth, has given Kurzel a dramatic carte blanche to blend historical fact with mythical legend. In doing so, he's created something that's more pop art portrait than chapter and verse.

It's vibrant, arresting stuff. Cinematographer Ari Wegner's camera prowls a cold, foreboding landscape which stands in stark contrast to Alice Babidge's colourful, androgynous, period-flouting costumes; a frenetic, rocky soundtrack propels the action towards the climactic, nightmarish battle between Ned's gang and the authorities. Yet, crucially, there's a raw authenticity seeded amongst the cinematic clamour. Much like Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale, another recent tale set in 19th century colonial Australia about an individual wresting power back from those who would reserve it for themselves, this ultimately plays as a celebration of those social outliers who dare to stand up and fight back.

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.